Studies show that the use of police body cameras is a net benefit when it comes to maintaining the peace and promoting public understanding on the many challenges of police work. Given recent heated public debate about excessive force by police, cameras are more a part of the solution than the problem.
A 2013 study by researchers at Cambridge University found a 50 percent reduction of force — either by a police officer or a respondent — when body cameras were present. Moreover, the airing of video, in many cases, can lead to better public understanding, such as the recent release of footage regarding a Sonoma County sheriff’s deputy who used force in subduing an 18-year-old during a routine stop in Petaluma.
At the same time, the public has reason to be concerned when such video is kept from public view for dubious reasons. Such was the case of a 17-year-old Chicago youth shot 16 times and killed by a police officer in 2014. The dash cam video, which will now be used as evidence in the officer’s murder trial, was withheld from public view for 13 months and only released under orders of a judge.
Recordings from body camera video are public documents, and the public’s reasonable right to access those recordings must be protected.
Last month, we wrote in support of a bill that ensured such transparency. We also opposed legislation that threatened to inhibit the public’s access to body camera and dashboard videos. We regret to report that in all of these cases, the public’s access rights have lost, or are losing, in favor of giving public safety greater control over how and when, if ever, these videos are made public.
SB 1286 by state Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, would have made clear the public’s right to records pertaining to instances of police brutality. But it died quietly in the Senate Appropriations Committee. A similar bill, AB 1957 by Assemblyman Bill Quirk, D-Hayward, which would have made public video related to incidents of police misconduct, died on the Assembly floor on a 28-36 vote. Assemblymen Jim Wood, D-Healdsburg, and Marc Levine, D-San Rafael, both voted in favor of the bill. Assemblyman Bill Dodd, D-Napa, did not vote.
Both bills faced stiff opposition from public safety unions, which claimed the documents would put the safety and privacy of officers and their families at risk, this despite the argument that, given the state’s openness laws, there should be no such presumption of privacy for those, such as police officers, engaged in the conduct of public business, particularly if there is misconduct involved.
Meanwhile, other bills are moving forward that hand greater control of video to police themselves. AB 2533 by Assemblyman Miguel Santiago, D-Los Angeles, would prohibit a public agency from responding to a California Public Records Act request seeking the release of body camera video without giving the public safety officer involved at least three business days warning. The officer would then have the option of seeking an injunction to block the release. On what grounds? Only his personal belief that he or his family might be put at risk. Certainly even those guilty of gross misconduct would have such concerns.
Granted, seeking an injunction is not, in and of itself, the power to block the release. But it would create unnecessary delays in the public’s right to access such documents and would put the burden on members of the public or institutions such as newspapers to do battle over an injunction that they may not even know has been filed.