Police Department Says Cop Camera Footage Not Public Record


After resisting for decades, Major League Baseball has adopted instant replay on nearly all disputed calls, providing a transparent and public view of what happened. While this frustrates many by slowing down the action, it almost always gets the call right.

For our benefit, not yours.
Foter/West Midlands Police

Michael Brown's shooting death by Ferguson, Missouri, police has made a national issue out of the lack of "instant replay" for altercations between cops and citizens. At least one witness claims Brown stood with his hands up and screamed "I don't have a gun, stop shooting!" while a "source close to the department's top brass" told FoxNews.com that Brown nearly beat Officer Darren Wilson unconscious before Wilson shot Brown six times. 

With such disparity between eyewitness accounts, and with high-definition video technology so inexpensive and ubiquitous, there is a growing demand for police to record their interactions with the public. As Reason's Ron Bailey wrote, "Requiring law enforcement to wear video cameras will protect your constitutional rights and improve policing."

There have already been some ups and downs with experiments in police cameras. Cameras have been turned off, failed to record, and footage has been lost. It will also likely take some time before departments require their officers to record and preserve video evidence rather than merely suggesting they do so. 

Still, in places like Rialto, California, the mere presence of cameras has resulted in a precipitous drop in complaints and use of force. It has also improved community relations with the police, since everyone tends to exhibit more civilized behavior when they know they are being recorded.

In The Guardian, Rory Carroll writes:

"Rialto's randomised controlled study has seized attention because it offers scientific – and encouraging – findings: after cameras were introduced in February 2012, public complaints against officers plunged 88% compared with the previous 12 months. Officers' use of force fell by 60%.

"When you know you're being watched you behave a little better. That's just human nature," said Farrar. "As an officer you act a bit more professional, follow the rules a bit better."

Video clips provided by the department showed dramatic chases on foot – you can hear the officer panting – and by car that ended with arrests, and without injury. Complaints often stemmed not from operational issues but "officers' mouths", said the chief. "With a camera they are more conscious of how they speak and how they treat people."

The same applied to the public; once informed they were being filmed, even drunk or agitated people tended to become more polite, Farrar said. Those who lodged frivolous or bogus complaints about officers tended to retract them when shown video of the incidents. "It's like, 'Oh, I hadn't seen it that way.'"

Which brings us to the disappointing news coming out of San Diego, where the police department asserts the evidence captured by police cameras is not for public consumption. As reported by Sara Libby in City Lab:

(The San Diego Police Department) claims the footage, which is captured by devices financed by city taxpayers and worn by officers on the public payroll, aren't public records. Our newsroom's request for footage from the shootings under the California Public Records Act was denied.

Once footage becomes part of an investigation, the department says it doesn't have to release them. SDPD also said during the pilot phase of the camera program that it doesn't even have to release footage from the cameras after an investigation wraps.

Got that? You, the taxpayer, pay for the cameras and the salaries of the people wearing the cameras who are charged with protecting and serving the community, but you are not entitled to review the footage of controversial police encounters, including shootings. Not even when the case is closed.

Such a policy makes the use of police-worn cameras beneficial only to police and not to the public. For a "scandal-plagued" PD like San Diego's, it's not surprising that they would prefer to set the precedent of one-way transparency, but it's unlikely to satisfy the public that justice was done.

If the public and the press do not get to vet the video evidence, they will remain dissatisfied with the government's assertion that they got the call right.

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  1. When somebody has a complaint against the TSA, they look for any security camera footage. For some odd reason, when it absolves the TSA from blame, the footage is available, and posted prominently. Otherwise, it’s somehow unavailable.

    As police cameras become more common, I expect that kind of reaction will be common.

    1. Third party storage would be necessary, under a contract not administered by the police department.

    2. That’s already the way it works with police dash cams.

    3. We should pressure lawmakers to embrace the cameras as the impartial witnesses they are. Pass legislation that says if the camera footage is somehow unavailable, then the defendants recollection of events should be considered by courts to be accurate.

    4. Does the tech exist to transmit in real time to a central hard drive?

      1. It’s on smartphones now, so, yes.

          1. IF you want to call it that. There is still a datacenter with harddrives on the other end.

            1. I am aware of this IT stuff, I both fear and dread it – while using it nonetheless.

                1. I have this rock that prevents hard drive crashes. If you hurry I’ll sell you the prototype before my government contract kicks in.

                  1. You stole the IRS’ magic rock? You bastard.

                    1. No, no. The IRS has a normal rock that guarantees hard drive crashes.

  2. but you are not entitled to review the footage of controversial police encounters, including shootings.

    Of course not. It contradicts the officers’ lies. Can’t have the truth get in the way of a good shoot.

    1. What are you gonna believe, the fine, upstanding officer or your own lying eyes?

  3. Abolish. All. Police. Unions.

    You do that and this kind of shit disappears overnight.

    1. Abolish. All. Police Public Service. Unions.


      1. I never understood the purpose of Public Service Unions they can already negotiate with their bosses through you know elections.

        1. So you’d let the idiots of the general public have equal say in who runs your employer and say “that’s enough negotiating for you, no further negotiations allowed”?

          1. What? my job is subsidized by taxpayers.

            1. *isn’t

            2. You must work ina rare field where the contaminated tentrils of cronyism hasn’t reached. Or is there some threshold of public monies where it becomes ‘evil’ and you no longer regard the line worker as an employee?

              1. Nope but I work in northern va and in construction so I pay out way more in permits than anyone else should. However nobody in this area is escaping the tendrils of cronyism everything is driven by the leviathan.

                1. However my negotiation begins and ends with my vote so why should you be any different.

                2. Hey, Idle Hands, we missed you at the last meetup. Email me and I’ll let you know when the next one is.

            3. Lets do an analogy Idle Hands.

              Lets say in your company all employees were granted one share of stock, but there were millions of other shares on the open market. Would you regard your one vote for the board of directors to be sufficient negotiating ability with regards to the terms of your employment? Because that’s the equivalent of what you call for for anyone who has the mistofortune of calling a government their employer.

              1. I was typing that when you replied. Lets change ‘your company’ to ‘a company’

                1. My point still stands.

              2. UnCivil, what gives a group of public sector employees the right to collectively bargain with an employer who is being represented by the very person the union financed an election for?

                Fuck that shit. I don’t get to sit in on their CBA negotiation but a lackey does and gets to spend my money with the rigged results?

              3. You, as an individual, are not being forced to work for the government, so you can negotiate individually the terms of your employment. Your leverage is that you can take your skills and abilities elsewhere. Getting one vote for the board of directors of the company you happen to work for is a bonus, not the extent of your negotiating ability.

              4. What does voting stock have to do with anything? That’s a silly analogy.

                Most people negotiate their terms of employment quite successfully without ever having the misfortune to encounter a union. Are you arguing that public employees too stupid to manage this?

  4. “Requiring law enforcement to wear video cameras will protect your constitutional rights and improve policing.”

    Too bad those aren’t the priorities with the cops.

    1. They have only one priority. Officer safety. Anything that interferes with that, like serving and protecting for example, is not even a consideration.

      1. Your forgot job security

      2. They have only one priority. Officer safety.

        Then why leave the station at all? Just stay in the office and take police reports over the phone.

        1. Then why leave the station at all?

          Because they’re kids that need harassing and homeless people that need beating.

          1. Exactly – it’s about getting their jollies first, and officer safety second. Cops actually get shot serving no knock warrants. But they’re not going to stop doing it because it’s just so gol-dang fun.

        2. Would be safer for us.

        3. If the SHTF for real, that’s exactly where they’ll be.

          Notice they didn’t take on too many of the looters in Ferguson but had no problem firing tear gas and rubber bullets at the people marching with their hands above their head and at the reporters filming them?

          1. Notice they didn’t take on too many of the looters in Ferguson but had no problem firing tear gas and rubber bullets at the people marching with their hands above their head and at the reporters filming them?

            Yep. Just like I noticed that when the cops apprehended Whitey Bulger, a truly dangerous individual, they didn’t send in a SWAT team. No, they lured him outside under false pretenses and ambushed him.

            They’re lying when they say that they use SWAT teams for their own safety. They use SWAT teams because they get a thrill out of terrorizing people who are no threat to them.

  5. I actually agree with the police on this to some degree. The thing about police interaction with the public is that it is just not the police there. The public is there too. While the police have absolutely no right to privacy or any standing whatsoever to object to their on duty actions being recorded and made public, the public might.

    Consider this. Suppose your daughter has real mental health issues and has locked herself in the bathroom and is naked threatening to hurt herself. You call an ambulance and of course the police show up as well. A really ugly and horrible scene unfolds where the EMTs and the police have to restrain and take your daughter off to the psych ward to keep her from harming herself. Assume for the sake of argument the police act entirely proper here and the ugly scene was just one of those horrible things that happen when someone is really mentally ill.

    If that cop has a vest recorder and everything that camera takes in is a public record, then anyone can request the tape and watch the entire tape for their voyeuristic pleasure. Do you think that is fair to you or your daughter? I don’t. And for that reason I don’t think such tapes should automatically be available to anyone who requests them.

    1. I think anyone on those tapes at the scene should have an absolute right to view them, if they have any allegation of misconduct against the police or there is any kind of legal dispute about the facts of the incident. And if they want to turn said tapes over to the media or post them on the internet, that is their right, since they are the only ones who have any privacy interests here. I do not think however that anyone else, including the media should be automatically granted access to such a tape without consent of the non police on it.

      1. My first thought was “of course those recordings should be public information”, but you raise some good points that I hadn’t considered regarding the privacy of the people that the police are interacting with.

      2. If it is a policy that they must obtain a release from the people in the video I could support that. But what will happen is when it helps the cops or hurts the perp the video will be released immediately and when it hurts the police or helps the perp then it will be evidence in an internal review not open to the public.

        1. But what will happen is when it helps the cops or hurts the perp

          That is easy. The DA just gets a subpoena for them. A court can always order the release of a record.

          1. Right. Because as we all know, the DA’s are quick to go after cops or,to take the word of a suspect that they don’t have a close working relationship over a cop that they do have that relationship with.

            1. Then the person who the cop victimized will want get released. You have the situation Florida referred to backwards. He is talking about when the tape benefits the cops and convicts the criminal. In that case, yeah the DA will be subpoenaing the videotape of the defendant committing the crime. I am pretty certain of that.

          2. The DA and the cops are on the same team.

      3. I mostly agree, but will go one farther — anyone who thinks they might have a Fourth Amendment issue. “I can’t be meeting with X to do a drug deal because he was in San Diego, and I’d like to see if you have exculpatory evidence.” Should also get them. So they are not “public”, but they must be turned over to anyone who makes claim to them.

    2. Unfortunately I think making the video accessible is a cost of limiting government. Interactions with the police are not privileged.

      1. If they are in my home and not in public why the hell aren’t they? If the cop does something wrong, I am going to be the victim of it and will no doubt want to release the tape showing it. Given that fact, why do we have to let the public see it unless I say so?

        1. I’m not calling it ideal. I just don’t think it will work to restrain the police without making it open and accessible. Who’s to say that the cops couldn’t exert pressure on you to not approve the release? And in reference to a DA’s request (per your suggestion above), I don’t trust their motivations either.

          1. I think it really isn’t a question of what is best or worst. It is an issue of people have privacy rights in their own homes and no system should violate that.

            Again, if it is in public, then it should always be available. I would only support restricting it if it was in someone’s home.

            1. I think that’s a fair enough distinction. However, I would put the following requirements on the system.

              Third party administration – the police and the DA do not have any control over it, either directly or contractually.

              Disabling must be a punishable offense

              1. Yes. And as much as possible it should be automated, deadman’s-switch style, with the default outcome being that all video is eventually released.

                Every decision to withhold video from the public record must generate a public audit trail. Keeping any video in an un-released state should be made increasingly difficult and, eventually, impossible.

            2. John, very good points. I agree.

              Also, Scruffy’s suggestion that a third party administrator, preferably a non-public sector entity, is a good one and should be part of such a process.

            3. If you’re talking to a cop, it’s never in any way a private conversation. The location of the conversation isn’t relevant.

        2. That issue has already been resolved, John. There was a case where a Cops-type show was filming, a guy called the cops (IIRC, he was having a heart attack), the news crew followed the cops into the house, the guy tried throwing them out, the court ruled that the TV crew was serving the public interest in documenting the cops behaviour.

          Funny how ‘filming the cops’ was okay if the cops agree and the public didn’t but the other way around wasn’t.

          But while I agree that police films shouldn’t be filed at the public library just like a newspaper, they are a public document and the default position is that they should be available unless there is some good reason not to release them, and that ‘good reason’ should be in the form of a court order, not a cop’s discretion.

          1. So there at least needs to be a good amount of time between when something is filmed and when it is released to everyone has an opportunity to request that court order.

      2. I think John makes a good point, though. Should someone who calls for an ambulance have to have themselves, their family members, etc. on Youtube just because the cops showed up?

    3. If it happens,in your house, it is no longer in public and,you would have a right to some degree how,it gets released to the public.

      If it happens in the street, it should be available as a matter of public record.

      1. I agree with that. If it is in a public place, then no one has a right to privacy. But if it is on private property, then no way should that tape be released without my permission.

        1. The most importact factor is that determination should not be made by the police department.

        2. I just thought a little more about this and it really opens the door to some strong arm intimidation by the cops.

          “If you ask,for,the tape,to,be released,,you and every,member,of,your,immediate family,might find themselves being,pulled,over every time,you leave the house”-kind,of,shit.

          Remember, they aren’t above packing a courtroom and staring at a jury box when their brothers beat a man to death. What makes you think they won’t threaten to fuck your family’s world up should you allow the release of a recording of them doing some nasty shit on private property?

          1. Any system can be abused. The cops could just “lose the tape” Lois Lerner style if they really wanted to. That would be easier than strong arming the victim. And even if the tape is totally public, who is going to request to see it if the cops strong arm the victim into never telling anyone what they did? How would anyone know to want to see it even if they could?

            Ultimately, the danger of subjecting innocent people to being yuotube sensations I think is greater than the danger of the cops bullying people into not agreeing to release the tape.

        3. What if you are shot dead, alone in your home,by a service revolver?

  6. It’s a cliche, but when we have replay for sports but not for justice, it makes you think of Rome.

  7. It,looks like that new cop shooting victim in Ferguson had a steak knife. And the chief said they couldn’t have used a taser because his jacket might have deflected the probes. The P1 peanut gallery is back-slapping all around as predicted.


    1. They said he charged at them with the knife held high, and that is an obvious lie. I wonder what else they lied about.

      1. “It’s not a lie…if you believe it.”
        -George Costanza

    2. Do police still carry chemical sprays? It maybe legit that a taser won’t work on heavy clothing, so do they have another less lethal option if that is a known weakness.

      1. Those cops unloaded on the guy 15 seconds after showing up. And they were both pointing their guns as they exited their vehicle…while the guy still had his hands in his pockets.

        They made no effort to do anything but pump him full of,lead.

        1. Sure, but if an excuse is our less lethal option has a critical weakness, then don’t they have a responsibility to have a remedy for a known problem? I know in real life they don’t, but it seems like that weak excuse should be picked apart by the media.

      2. A water cannon is a chemical spray, I suppose.

    3. That jacket had about as much chance of deflecting taser probes as it did deflecting those bullets.

      1. Regardless, there were two cops. One of them could have tried the taser while the other was ready with the lead. It’s not like this guy was right on top of them.

    4. One of the comments on P1 “good guys 1 – bad guys 0” should read “bad guys 1 – different bad guys 0”.

      I actually think this particular shooting was justified. Ever seen what a guy can do with a knife? Doesn’t take long to close on someone if you’re within 21 feet, which is their operational perimeter for “lethal force against a guy with a knife”, iirc. I would have shot the guy, too, if I were in a similar situation. (Of course, I’m too honest to be a cop; “raised hands”, my ass.)

  8. We should be blaming a lot of this on the police unions.

    They do more than anyone else to make individual police officers unaccountable to the people they protect and “serve”*.

    “The NYPD won’t implement a judge’s order to outfit cops with surveillance cameras until it has a gun to its head, sources said yesterday.

    And the department has an unaccustomed ally: the police union.

    After a Manhattan federal judge ripped the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk policy Monday and ordered remedial measures such as the cameras, union lawyers began researching whether the camera requirement was even legal.

    Sources said it’s possible that cops can’t be forced to wear the extra equipment without it being first negotiated as part of their union contract.”


    *It’s a cookbook!

    1. I guess it comes down to how much the judges values his authority. The judge has the ability to remedy that real quick. He just orders the police chief and the union chief to do it. If they don’t, he declares them in contempt of court, calls the Marshals and lets them think about it in the Manhattan federal correction center. He has the authority to do that. It is just a question of whether he has the balls.

      1. “It is just a question of whether he has the balls.”

        There is no question there – no judge I’ve ever seen, heard, or read about has the balls. They should, you’re right – but they don’t. We can count on that.

      2. What judge is going to defy the “seventh largest army in the world” and not fear repercussions?

        1. First, you know that the judge would cut them some temporal leeway in order to comply with his order.

          Next, some commissar or another (it could even be a Lloyd Cutler type) would arrange to meet the judge for drinks and casually remind the judge of his propensity to pay for consensual encounters with ladyboys.

          Need I say more?

        2. Because he is a judge who works for a government that has the first largest army in the world. That is why.

          1. John, do you doubt that the judge’s proclivities would not be examined for possible use as leverage?

  9. Pretty sure Ron Burgundy said it best. Go fuck yourself, San Diego (PD).

  10. No wai! Nobody could have possibly predicted this!

  11. “Requiring law enforcement to wear video cameras will protect your constitutional rights and improve policing.”

    This is BS. The “Policing” is not done to protect anything but the state, the politicians, and the laws they make up. Who would hire police to carry out the violations of liberty that occur daily? Would anyone here that supports this system actually hire someone to rough them up, or search and seize their property for failure to pay the extortion rate of the day or what have you? I highly doubt it.

    What if PC Richards all of the sudden decided that you shouldn’t be allowed to own guns, so while delivering your refrigerator they subdue you and your family and take your firearms, and other stuff they feel you do not deserve. Why does one not respect the authority of the PC Richards uniform and submit to them?

    Many wouldn’t allow such a situation to happen, and the PC Richard folk would probably meet dire consequences for their aggression and attempt of violence. Would you continue to do business with PC Richard after such an incident, or would you choose to never do business with them, and such an event would probably result in others abandoning that company and it going out of business. PC Richard would find such conflict costly, and they would be held liable for such actions.

  12. The solution is not cameras, or some DA that is on the same team hopefully requesting the video, or anything else that keeps this system alive. What needs to occur is private means of protection and defense that is subjected to immediate action by its consumers in a free market, and where free individuals are able to protect themselves and their liberty if need be.

  13. It HAS to be uploaded to a Public domain… the Police cannot have access to the raw, original imagery… a uniformed cop can’t work without a functioning camera and microphone…this applies to SWAT Teams and Prison Guards…. this needs to be a Federal LAW with severe penalties and ENFORCED nationwide.

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