Police departments in the Bay Area have some of the most high-tech body camera equipment in the country. The Alameda County Sheriff’s Department this summer decided to spend $1.5 million a year on new, Axon cameras as a result of multiple download failures of the old equipment and following the high-profile 2015 case of Stanislav Petrov, where none of the three deputies accused of beating the alleged car thief in a San Francisco alleyway had turned on their equipment.
In fact, the sheriff’s equipment is so cutting edge, the cameras are set to turn on automatically whenever a deputy pulls a gun, as do the cameras of his or her colleagues who are in close proximity, theoretically preventing any human error or forgetfulness.
And the body camera video abounds. Roughly 95 percent of large police departments in the country now have the technology. And for the most part, officers are supposed to turn them on for the most part to document their daily interactions.
The public often doesn't get to see body camera video
The problem is, according to activists, a grieving girlfriend, the California Newspaper Publishers Association, and at least one California lawmaker, is that the public doesn’t get to see this video. That is, unless police departments choose to release the footage. California law now allows individual police departments to decide when, and if, they will release body camera video.
Sometimes they do. Recently, the Sonoma County Sheriff showed body camera footage of a deputy racing heroically into the Tubbs Fire to rescue people. And faced with public pressure, there are departments who release video, or at least parts of it, after suspects are shot and killed. But much of the time they don’t. And they don’t have to.
“This kind of mentality that says we know better, and we are accountable to ourselves just means that want to police themselves,” said LaDoris Cordell, a retired Santa Clara County Superior Court judge and former Independent Police Auditor for the San Jose Police Department. “They don’t want any other eyes on it. And that’s really really bad, if you don’t have accountability you’re ripe for corruption.”
Cordell, and those like her who support releasing the video, argue that the footage can help change police behavior if society has a chance to weigh in on what happened, and that community members should decide for themselves what actually happened instead of relying on the police account.
Many law enforcement agencies oppose releasing the footage
Law enforcement, and there are 14 agencies who formally oppose a bill currently pending in California, counter that releasing the video publicly could compromise sensitive investigations. Local departments should continue to “maintain the authority to determine when and how such recordings should be released including whether they should be released at all,” according to the California State Sheriff’s Association.
Plus, police also say that they worry about releasing the video willy nilly because it has the ability to invade citizens’ privacy and compromise police investigations.
“All this stuff would just be thrown up on YouTube,” Alameda County Sheriff’s Sgt. Ray Kelly said, adding that protecting the integrity of a police investigation is of utmost importance to law enforcement.
And on top of that, Kelly said that honoring public records requests to release the video would be time consuming and expensive.
Criticism of police at a boiling point
The debate comes at a time when criticism of police nationwide is at a boiling point and the high-profile deaths of many black men over the last half-decade has caused an uproar over the treatment of minorities by law enforcement in the United States.
There is one way to get the video. People who sue get to see the videos when their lawyers collect discovery. But even then, it’s not always that simple.
A grieving girlfriend wants the video released to the public
Laurie Valdez, whose boyfriend was by San Jose State University police after they say he wouldn’t drop a saw blade, wants the body camera footage taken by the officer to be released to the public. The Santa Clara County District Attorney cleared the officers and allowed for a one-day viewing of the video for a handful of people and released three still photographs of that day, to the public. Also, Valdez’s attorney, Jaime Leanos, was able to obtain a copy of the video through a federal lawsuit, which is now in appellate court. But the suit is under gag order, so no one can discuss it or release it, although it might be made public as the case progresses.
Valdez is sure that if the public could see the video, people would see that her boyfriend, Antonio Guzman, was not threatening police in February 2014 and didn’t immediately heed their commands because he didn’t speak English.
“Body cameras, I think, are a just a pacifier to make the community think they’re doing something to rebuild trust,” Valdez said. “All the resentment and all the feelings of mistrust, that’s their own fault and it’s the leaders’ fault for not holding them accountable. How are they supposed to have respect for these officers if they are always hiding the truth?”
Case-by-case basis - police and prosecutors get to decide
In Guzman’s case, the Santa Clara County District Attorney cleared the officers involved in the shooting, saying they acted in a justified manner. In terms of why the office wouldn’t release the video to the public, a spokesman released this statement: “Transparency must be balanced against privacy and the integrity of our cases. Therefore, even though California law exempts body-worn camera footage from public disclosure, we will continue to make decisions about their release on a case-by-case basis.”
To be fair, the same DA’s office released two other fatal officer-involved shootings, one in Palo Alto in 2015 and one in Santa Clara earlier this year. Yet, the office would not explain why those videos were released and not the one in Guzman’s case.
Cordell, the retired judge, this “case-by-case” approach is bogus.
“Here’s the thing,” she said. “Police say it should be private. I’m saying no, because what happened, happened in public.”
Cordell said she’s not advocating for body camera video in a case that’s in an active investigation to be released immediately. Nor is she urging for video to be released in crimes that involve minors, victims of sexual assault and recordings taken in hospitals.
But those situations don’t make up the bulk of police interactions, she said.
“I’m talking about traffic encounters on the street,” Cordell said. “It’s a public issue. There’s nothing private or secret.”
Plus, she said, the equipment - and its product - belongs to the people.
“Those body cameras who paid for those? We did,” she said. “Who paid for that footage? We did. Taxpayers. That’s our stuff.”
A lawmaker is working to change California law
Assemblyman Phil Ting (D-San Francisco) is trying to pass a bill, along with the California Newspaper Publishers Association, requiring police departments to release body camera video in a timely fashion. In its most current version of the bill, police officers would have to release the video within 120 days - giving them plenty of time, Ting said, to complete an investigation. He had originally wanted the video to be released in 90 days, but has rewritten the bill to try to appease law enforcement. Other similar attempts to address body camera footage have failed at least four previous times.
“Body cameras were developed so that you could have more transparency,” Ting said. “When you’re enforcing the law, public trust is paramount.”
Just like California has public records requests, where information must be released within 10 days of asking, Ting feels that similar rules should apply to body camera video.
Body camera policies vary by agency, and laws vary by state. Adam Marshall, an attorney with the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press, has worked for two years to compile the varying laws, or lack of them, regarding body cameras around the country. And Upturn, a nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C., produced a “policy scorecard” for police-worn body cameras last month, showing that Oakland, San Jose and San Francisco get failing grades in transparency, in a category called “footage access.” Only five departments that the nonprofit reviewed received a “good” on the Body Worn Camera scorecard.
Police say releasing the footage would violate privacy, harm investigations
Many police officers say they like it the way it is. A half a decade ago, police officers were balking and wearing the technology. Now, they say, the videos are evidence, and evidence that they control and often can use in their favor. Some departments, however, in Cincinnati, Las Vegas, Parker, Colorado; and Washington, D.C., are the exception, Upturn noted. Those four departments have an explicit procedure to allow recorded individuals, like those seeking to file a police misconduct complaint, to view the footage of their own cases. No known department in California has such a policy.
On a recent ridealong with the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department, a room full of deputies raised their hands to say they liked wearing the cameras.
“You document everything that happens,” Deputy S. Majoros said. “Everything is recorded. Audio. Video. There’s not much disputing what’s on the video.”
Deputy Joseph Atienza agreed: “All you gotta do is go back and show your supervisor the video and it shows the full interaction and it clears you of any wrongdoing. That’s happened to me personally.”
None of the deputies could provide an instance where they allowed the complainant to review the video.
Releasing the video could change police behavior, experts argue
A body camera study released recently showed that police behavior does not change when police wear the equipment. But critics are quick to point out that it’s not just wearing the cameras that matter; it’s giving the public a chance to see what’s on those videos. Researchers at Stanford University released a study last year showing that Oakland officers treat minorities differently, relying on body camera footage for some of their results. The Oakland police department has vowed to make changes for the better because of that study. KTVU asked to review those videos and was denied.
Even before police wore body cameras on their chests, video was a powerful societal tool, the researchers noted. When video surfaced of Rodney King getting beaten by Los Angeles police in 1991, the public demanded that aluminum batons stopped being used. Eventually, their use subsided.
Shining a light on what police do, and in this case, releasing the video they record during their shifts, could be significant and powerful, activists say.
“Release it to the public, let people know what’s going on,” Cordell said. “If you have nothing to hide then put the information out there.”