Articles Tagged with body cameras

More than 1,100 San Diego police officers are now outfitted with body cameras, and the San Diego County District Attorney’s office received more than 100,000 body-camera videos from police across the county since 2016. Body cameras were initially intended to be a transparency tool to reassure the public that their police force follows the rule of law. In other words, body-worn camera footage is now a staple of San Diego’s police force, yet members of the public have not been able to view it.

In fact, even after a trial is complete, it is nearly impossible for members of the public to access body camera footage. Police agencies claim that they withhold body camera videos from the public to preserve the accused’s right to a fair trial and to avoid tainting the jury pool.

Public Records Requests

Neither the San Diego Police Department nor the San Diego County district attorney’s office provides body camera footage through California’s open records laws. Instead, a requester has to go to the Superior Court where the trial is held, where copies of the video are kept in the evidence room. Even then, seeing the video requires a court order.

When the Evidence can be Viewed

Since police footage is next to impossible to obtain, there are only a few ways a defendant can see his or her own video.

  • If the prosecutor uses the body camera footage as evidence to try to obtain a conviction or compel a plea deal. The footage gets shared as part of the discovery process.
  • Prosecutors may share the tape during trial as part of the evidence.
  • If the District Attorney releases the video. The SDPD last year released a policy that provides a path for releasing videos of officer involved shootings in cases where no charges are being filed against the officer. This policy states that the district attorney has to by default release the video.
  • If you file a citizen complaint against the cop. The police may be willing to release it to prove their innocence.

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As I have written before, Police agencies across the country have begun outfitting officers with cameras as an attempt to regain the public’s trust. It has been shown that the San Diego Police Department’s (SDPD) use of body cameras on officers has resulted in fewer complaints from the public. However, while complaints against officers fell 23% between July 2014 and June 2015 instances of force increased 10% in the same time period, according to an SDPD report. It is not known why. Currently, 871 officers across the department wear cameras. However, the report only analyzed data from the Southeastern, Central, and Mid-City division (the only departments that have used body cameras for a full year).

Recently, the  California Western School of Law in downtown San Diego held a forum with San Diego police Chief Shelley Zimmerman, the ACLU, law students, and members of the general public on whether body camera footage should be publicly available. The SDPD takes the position that privacy issues outweigh expectations that a police agency would release footage of a controversial event, such as use of force by an officer. SDPD’s 15-page body camera policy requires officers to hit “record” when they are about to encounter a member of the public. Public access to police body-worn camera videos continues to be part of the national discussion over police use of force.

Public Records Requests

With body camera video more common either voluntarily or mandated by law, criminal defense attorneys will be able utilize the more-accessible footage to gain evidence to aid in your case.  Whether or not body camera footage will be publicly available, the California Public Records Act § 6250 et seq allows for members of the public to request records from a state agency such as a police department.

Public records in the California Public Records Act are defined as “any writing containing information relating to the conduct of the public’s business prepared, owned, used, or retained by any state or local agency regardless of physical form or characteristics.” Specifically, while individual’s ‘rap sheets or arrest records are exempt from disclosure due to privacy, information in the “police blotter” (e.g. time and circumstances of calls to police; name and details of arrests, warrants, charges, hearing dates, etc.) must be disclosed. While identifying data in police personnel files and misconduct complaints are exempt, disclosure may be obtained using special procedures under Evidence Code section 1043. Continue reading

Police agencies across the country have begun outfitting officers with the cameras as an attempt to regain the public’s trust back, and the SDPD is no exemption.  However this is not enough. Last month, on April 30th SDPD was involved in yet another fatal shooting of an unarmed man, Fridoon Zalbeg Rawshannehad.  The officer’s body cam was shut off prior to the shooting for unexplained reasons, and the incident is still being investigated by SDPD’s homicide unit.  In the interim, the SDPD is still struggling to explain the shooting of an unarmed citizen, Victor Ortega, three years ago.  In that case, Judge Burn’s denied SDPD’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit due to the inconsistencies of officer testimony.

Meanwhile, at least 20 proposals to regulate body cameras worn by cops, revamp the prosecution of deadly force cases, and impose other measures were made in the wake of national high-profile killings by police, and have been debated by California lawmakers.  In Sacramento alone, legislators have introduced at least five measures pertaining to body cameras, including one that would establish grant funding to pay for the equipment, another proposing guidelines for data storage and one that would address how footage would be subject to public records laws.

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