Police video recordings can’t help with public oversight of law enforcement agencies if they are kept secret, a California legislative panel decided Tuesday.
State lawmakers advanced legislation that would require law enforcement agencies to generally release body camera video and recordings of fatal police shootings and other significant incidents. But it’s still a long way from final legislative approval. “Public oversight is not possible if the videos are never released to the public,” American Civil Liberties Union lobbyist Lizzie Buchen testified in favor of the measure.
The proposal comes amid a nationwide push for body camera recordings to be released quicker after fatal police shootings. It would establish a statewide policy on when body camera footage and other audio and video recordings should be released.
The state Senate’s Public Safety Committee advanced Assembly Bill 748 on a 7-2 party line vote, with Republicans opposed. It is expected to be considered by two more Senate committees before it could go to the full Senate and then the Assembly.
It would amend California’s public records statute to limit the discretion that police departments have for withholding body camera videos. The proposed measure would require police departments to release video in cases where law enforcement officers use force or in incidents where it’s believed there is a violation of law or public policy.
However, it would allow law enforcement agencies to withhold recordings if they can demonstrate that the public interest in disclosure is outweighed by other factors. They could also blur or redact certain images to protect citizens’ privacy.
California News Publishers Association attorney Nikki Moore told the committee that the measure “strikes that balance in protecting privacy.” But more than a dozen law enforcement organizations oppose what California State Sheriffs’ Association lobbyist Cory Salzillo called a “one-size-fits-all” policy. He and other opponents said it should be left to local police departments to determine when, if ever, body camera footage should be released.
There should at least be more flexibility on when videos must be released and what images can be redacted or blurred to protect investigations, said Randy Perry, a lobbyist for the Peace Officers Research Association of California.
State lawmakers have failed to pass a handful of bills in the last few years that addressed body-worn video, including establishing policies on when officers should turn their cameras on and off and when the public would have access to videos. The Los Angeles Police Department is among several California departments that deny the disclosure of body camera videos and consider the footage to be investigative records that are exempt from the state’s open records law.
Assemblyman Phil Ting said the state currently has “a patchwork of policies and in some instances, very little policy” on releasing recordings. “Body cameras were created to improve greater public trust between law enforcement and community members and without access to that video footage we’re not really able to achieve those goals,” the San Francisco Democrat said in an interview.
Ting noted his bill allows police departments to withhold videos if there’s more of a public interest in not disclosing the recordings and to withhold recordings that are part of an ongoing investigation for up to 120 days. He amended the bill from the original 90-day release deadline and said other changes are likely as negotiations continue. “This is an area where California law really lags behind the rest of the country in allowing transparency,” said Peter Bibring, the director of policing practices at the ACLU of Southern California.
The committee also advanced AB284 that would require Attorney General Xavier Becerra to study law enforcement agencies’ use of deadly force during 2015 and 2016 and make recommendations for reducing the toll. Becerra, who supports the bill, said his office’s analysis would “go beyond the snapshot that we often see on the news” and “take a close look at the nature and circumstances leading up to the shooting.” He said the study would be the nation’s first such statewide evaluation of officer-involved shootings. “We’re going to figure out how and whether future incidents like these can be prevented,” Becerra said.