By KC Stanfield
A state assemblymember from San Diego is working to ensure law enforcement agencies across California follow the same rules when they adopt body-worn cameras.
On April 30, the Assembly Privacy and Consumer Protection Committee narrowly passed Shirley Weber’s Assembly Bill 66, which sets specific rules for agencies that require peace officers to wear cameras, such as notifying citizens when they are being recorded. This means most law enforcement agencies will operate body cameras under the same rules.
“I have about five law-enforcement agencies in my district,” Weber said, referring to the police departments of La Mesa, San Diego, Chula Vista and National City, as well as the county Sheriff’s Department.
“We need to establish consistency statewide for the use of body cameras so that citizens know where they stand and so that they aren’t abused in a way that undermines their original intent — re-establishing trust between law enforcement and communities of color,” Weber said.
There have been many recent high-profile incidents of police officers shooting unarmed citizens, many of whom have been minorities. The August 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, sparked protests across the country. During the committee hearing, Weber referenced a more recent incident in North Charleston, South Carolina, where a bystander’s video showed a police officer shooting an unarmed Walter “Lamar” Scott in the back as he ran from the officer. Scott died moments later.
To prevent events like these and potentially protect the law enforcement agencies against false claims of abuse, local governments and police departments have implemented laws or policies requiring officers to wear cameras.
The San Diego Police Department began experimenting with body-worn cameras in January 2014. According to a recent report SDPD gave to a City Council committee, complaints are down 40.5 percent, the use of “personal body” force by officers has fallen by 46.5 percent and use of pepper spray decreased by 30.5 percent since the cameras were adopted.
As originally written, A.B. 66 would have forbidden officers from viewing the video until after they file an initial report in use-of-force incidents that result in serious bodily injury or death. This was, by far, the most controversial element of the bill at its first committee hearing.
Both the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union expressed support for the idea of officers depending on their memories for their initial report.
“There’s an issue of fairness,” said Kellen Russoniello, a staff attorney for the local ACLU chapter, in a recent interview with KPBS. “Police being shown the video can potentially tailor their statements. Law enforcement is getting special treatment, but the community is not.”
Most people who spoke in support of or against the bill agreed that police body cameras are necessary, but many said they had reservations because of this section of the bill. SDPD was among this group.
Randy Perry, who represented the Peace Officers Research Association of California, which initially opposed A.B. 66, said at the hearing that body cameras should be treated like every other piece of equipment that helps officers write their reports.
Others argued that having two conflicting reports could be used against the police officer and agency in court. Some police chiefs said if officers were not allowed to review video before writing their reports, they would be opposed to wearing body cameras altogether.
“The prescriptive nature of this bill, as written, could have unintended consequences of not allowing or not wanting agencies to now adopt body-worn camera systems,” Oxnard Police Chief Jeri Williams said.
To win majority support, the bill was amended to require all agencies with body cameras allowing officers to look at the footage before their report. Weber agreed to the amendment.
“Because I want a bill that provides some leadership and transparency as we move forward in this, I wanted to make sure our body cameras didn’t become the next tool people didn’t believe in because it didn’t have enough transparency or enough engagement in it,” Weber said. “That’s one of the reasons we looked at the piece about can you view it, can you not view it. It’s not a gotcha thing. It was really about trying to restore confidence.”
Agencies that already prohibit officers from reviewing video before writing reports, such as Oakland Police Department, will be allowed to keep those policies in place.
“We at the police department believe it was very important to get the officer’s recollection and their perception of what occurred prior to watching the video, because that’s what we’re really interested in,” Oakland Police Chief Sean Whent said.
In cases of sexual or domestic violence, the original version of the bill would have allowed victims to request the cameras to be turned off. That provision was removed, but that footage will not be available under the Public Records Act in order to protect the victims’ privacy.
The bill would also allow people to request the cameras be turned off when police are in a private residence without a warrant during a non-emergency situation. Other circumstances in which the cameras may be turned off would include: when the officer enters a medical facility where patients may be in view, when the officer responds to an accident or illness where the victim isn’t involved in any criminal activity.
A.B. 66 will next be heard in the Appropriations Committee before heading to an Assembly floor vote in early May. However, if the Assembly Privacy and Consumer Protection Committee is not pleased with the official amendments, it has the authority to pull the bill back.
—KC Stanfield is an SDCNN editorial intern. Please direct questions or feedback about this article to the editor at firstname.lastname@example.org.