OAKLAND, Calif. - Police body-worn cameras can be a vital tool in improving police accountability and transparency as support grows for new law enforcement reforms following the police killings of black men in places like Minneapolis and Atlanta.
But California's more than 600 law enforcement agencies have widely varying policies on the use of body cameras. And some agencies don’t use them at all.
Two recent police killings in the Bay Area that happened amid the social upheaval following the killing of George Floyd in Minnesota, underscore the inconsistencies in how body-camera technology is handled.
“Cameras are critically important,” said John Burris, a civil rights attorney representing the family of Erik Salgado. “Body worn cameras – Did you have it? If not, why not?”
California Highway Patrol officers fatally shot Salgado and wounded his pregnant girlfriend on June 6 in Oakland. CHP officials said Salgado rammed the officers in a stolen vehicle.
The killing has sparked outrage from many activists around the Bay Area who recently marched though Oakland, demanding answers to why police used deadly force.
But it’s unclear how much of the encounter was captured on video.
CHP patrol cruisers have dash cameras but most officers don’t have body cameras. The agency recently began pilot programs for testing cameras on officers in Oakland and in Stockton.
The Oakland Police Department is the lead agency in the investigation, but officials would not say if any of the CHP officers were wearing body cameras.
“We would like to see them because that will give some clear indication into whether there was a justifiable basis to not only stop the car but when the car is moving, shooting into the car,” Burris said.
He’s also representing the family of 23-year-old San Francisco resident Sean Monterossa, who was fatally shot by Vallejo police on June 2.
Police said the officer who killed Monterossa mistook a hammer tucked into his sweatshirt for the butt of a gun as he was in the process of kneeling. Vallejo police are equipped with body cameras but the department has not said if or when the officer activated his.
An independent review of the Vallejo Police Department found that until recently, officers were not required to activate their cameras. They are also allowed to review the footage before making any statements to investigators – a practice that many other departments forbid.
“Right now with everything that’s going on in our country, I think that transparency is really, really important,” San Francisco police Chief Bill Scott said in a recent interview with KTVU.
He took over as head of the department in January 2017 amid outrage following the police killing of Mario Woods and other people of color.
One of his first moves was to begin releasing body camera footage in the days after a police shooting. When a rookie cop shot Keita O’Neil in the city’s Bayview in December 2017, Scott released the body camera footage at a town hall meeting shortly after the shooting.
The video showed the officers fatally shooting O’Neil, who was unarmed, while he was running beside the officer’s patrol vehicle. Scott later fired the officer.
“To have the body-worn cameras is one thing, but to be transparent and to allow the release of that footage, I think, is a whole other level of transparency,” he said.
State Assemblyman Phil Ting wrote legislation that requires police departments to now release body camera footage within 45 days of a critical incident. Before the law, many departments refused to ever releases the videos.
“You see when you have video footage of a particular situation, how that really changes how people think about something, how people feel about something,” Ting said.
But many police accountability advocates believe more should be done at the state level to force departments change. Many want more uniformity in how police use the technology – like punishment for officers who fail to activate their cameras, and barring reviewing footage before making statements to investigators.
Burris believes “there’s a lot of work to be done.”
“A lot of it is whether the departments themselves are going to be transparent and offer up some accountability for what the officers have done,” he said.
Evan Sernoffsky is an investigative reporter for KTVU. Email Evan at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @EvanSernoffsky