Police Abuse

Hope for California Body Camera Bill Fades Amid Special Interest Power

Forget about any civil liberties rebound, you're just California dreamin'.

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As a reaction to national news reports about police killings, the California legislature had introduced a flurry of bills designed to provide better oversight of law-enforcement officials. In May, this column was optimistic about the focus on this long-neglected matter, and wondered whether the Capitol was seeing a civil-liberties rebound.

Legislators who pushed for new oversight and accountability laws warned that they had a tough row to hoe given the power of the state's law-enforcement unions. Sure enough, the centerpiece of the police-oversight-reform effort — creating policies that regulate the use of police body cameras — has fared poorly.

Even before the May article was published, legislators allowed a significant body-camera bill to be transformed into the opposite of its intent. San Diego Democratic Assemblywoman Shirley Weber's AB 66 would have imposed some requirements and guidelines for agencies whose officers use body cameras. Increasingly, cops are using them, but with few standards. Or the policies are designed to protect police rather than the public.

"It got Shanghaied by law enforcement, who put into the bill a provision that said police had access to the footage before they had to file their report," said Jim Ewert, general counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Association. A select group of staffers and lobbyists gutted it during a committee recess — the type of hijacking that's brazen, even by Capitol standards.

Another body-camera bill to provide grant funding to local agencies to implement body camera programs also died over stated concerns about its cost. That left two body-camera bills, including one by Sen. Bob Huff, R-San Dimas. His SB 175 died in recent days over concern that it essentially did nothing. It's hard to argue with Weber's published comments calling it "anemic."

"This bill would require each department or agency that employs peace officers and that elects to require those peace officers to wear body-worn cameras to develop a policy relating to the use of body-worn cameras," according to its language. One body-camera bill is alive (AB 69), but it is just as pointless as the Huff bill. It would require "law enforcement agencies to consider specified best practices when establishing policies" for body cameras.

Supporters of body cameras say they protect the public and the officer. Many officers initially opposed their use out of fear they would face discipline for on-the-job decisions or errant comments, but they have found a video record is useful in exonerating them when they are falsely accused of misbehavior.

But some key questions need to be answered: When are the videos released and who can access them? When must officers turn on their cameras? Do police officials or elected bodies approve the policies?

In May, a San Diego police officer "failed to turn on his camera before fatally shooting a man in the Midway District," reported NBC News. That prompted a change in the department's 11-page policy. The Oakland Police Department tends to release footage to the public, whereas the Los Angeles Police Department will not.

While the state shouldn't dictate local policies, it could offer basic standards. It seems clear that videos should be made public whenever there is an allegation of police misbehavior or a deadly shooting. They shouldn't be released if there's footage involving domestic violence. There are gray areas, such as when a celebrity or politician gets pulled over and mouths off.

It's no different than any other public-records issue. The default position should be for public access, Ewert argues, except as the California Public Records Act allows, when "the public interest served by not making the record public clearly outweighs the public interest served by disclosure of the record." Sometimes courts will make the final determination, of course. But state guidance would help.

Meanwhile, a new ACLU poll shows 70 percent of the public supporting the widespread release of body-camera footage and other accountability measures. But even lopsided support for more police accountability can't overcome the opposition of one interest group. I should have known better than to have given in to the temptation of optimism.

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22 responses to “Hope for California Body Camera Bill Fades Amid Special Interest Power

  1. While the state shouldn’t dictate local policies, it could offer basic standards.

    I’m not so sure about this. Local cops have incentives to back each other up, even supervisors. And we know they consider internal policies above the law. Letting them write their own policies and procedures on this is asking for switched off cameras and hidden or destroyed video evidence of various misdoings.

  2. LEOs have no problem with cameras THEY control. They loathe cameras they don’t control.

    A Carlos Miller operates a quite active site on this very subject:

    http://photographyisnotacrime.com/

    1. it’s called “chain of evidence”.
      legally useful evidence MUST be kept in the “chain of evidence” to prevent tampering or loss of evidence. Video records that private people make can be altered,edited,cut short,be incomplete,or shot from angles that conceal what really happened. They can be of some use in putting together a more complete picture of what actually occurred,but they aren’t completely reliable on their own,individually.
      And I’m not a cop,I have NO connection to any law enforcement or government.

      1. Video records that private people AND cops make can be altered,edited,cut short,be incomplete,or shot from angles that conceal what really happened.

        There, that’s fixed.

      2. Neither does the webcam on the officer himself or the dash cam offer a complete and full story. No single angle covers all the action, or even explains fully what happened. Look how hard it is, and how many angles must be shown before a hockey goal can be judged to be a goal, or not. And, in that case there are 3 or 4 camera angles, great technology, great lighting, close-ups, slo mo, and all the rest, and still there can be doubt.

        This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have them.

  3. Maybe I’m ignorant, but do committees have any purpose beyond the two political parties using them as a means to strengthen their control of the legislative process when they hold power? They seem completely unnecessary and do nothing but lend themselves to abuse.

    What’s so complicated about a representative crafting a piece of legislation, and putting it up for debate? There are way too many ways procedure and special rules get abused at the state and federal level.

    1. The purpose of committees is to kill good legislation without going on the record as having voted against it. This is a great example of this. No legislator wants there to be a record of them voting against a bill that is designed to protect the people from the police, but since they get special treatment from the cops for being part of the political class, they are going to do the bidding of the police instead of their constituents. So they kill it in committee.

    2. Herbert Hoover advanced a theory that troublemakers (advocates of legalizing beer) could be neutralized by appointment to some gubmint commission stacked with the opposition. That failed when his Law Enforcement Commission came out 7 to 4 for repeal or modification of the dry law in 1930. Hoover simply lied, claiming they were overwhelmingly for prohibition, secure in the knowledge that nobody would read the report. There is in that a lesson for folks who expect honesty from looters–even bible-waving looters.

    3. Legislative committees are not a new thing; they were around in Greek times. It does make sense for matters to be referred to committees who devote more time on a specific issue that the legislature as a whole. It could be an efficient use of resources and expertise if used properly.

      Legislative committees in the United States, however, have an amazing amount of power over the legislative process and you could make the argument that they’ve been co-opted by the areas of government/society/industry they’re tasked with overseeing; even something that is very popular in the legislature as a whole may die in committee for any of a multitude of reasons (some legitimate, others abusive).

  4. You mean the Rodney King beating footage wasn’t filmed then released by the Los Angeles police? Gosh… and it all seemed so real…

    1. You mean the footage that was filmed by a witness and then sent to a local news station after he contacted the police and was ignored?

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  6. The time is ripe. Concerned citizens can still make their voices heard in city council meetings across the state.
    In the absence of State law, localities will have to write local rules for new body camera access and potential public release. Of course it’s a long shot, and local rules may only be temporary, but some council somewhere will get it right and it might as well as be yours.
    Speak up at public local government meetings and persuade our elected city leaders that angry voters demand this action, and that your vote will be used against them if they fail to support transparency.
    And if they fail you, be vocal and angry and replace them.
    I have seen the power of the voices of angry voters change the course of political discussion, and alter the actions of small cities. The smaller the city, the more power “shame” has against the local politician.

  7. Unless that video is automatic, streaming , and public, this shit is a waste of time.

    1. I disagree with making it immediately public. There could easily be footage of victims, and they should have some say before their situation becomes the next viral video.

      However I agree with the notion that the video shouldn’t just be in police hands. Perhaps automatically streamed directly to a server in the public defenders’ office?

  8. If I were a police officer,I’d buy my own body camera and use it on the job. Since it’s MY camera,I would have control over the recordings,I’d see them first,it would help me keep my official statements straight and true and I’d still have evidence if someone made a complaint. AFAIK,there’s no law or PD rule that says I can’t use my own body camera. Any officer who fears or dislikes body cameras is highly suspect,and probably needs to be let go.

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  10. “There are gray areas, such as when a celebrity or politician gets pulled over and mouths off.”

    How the hell is that a gray area? Would such footage be held back if I or any other regular schmuck mouthed off? Then why the separate set of rules for those deemed a “celebrity” or a politician? Besides, what’s a celebrity? TV? TV and Movies? Authors? YouTubers? How many followers must one have in order to meet the “celebrity” cutoff.

    Really now, I’m huge in Japan.

    1. Re: the gray areas…

      If you or I in a drunken rant say something stupid it goes nowhere. If a politician says something stupid in a drunken rant his life could be ruined.

      Punishment has to fit the crime, and the SJWs will and do use anything against anyone they deem to be undesirable.

      I can see a gray area there. You’re caught in a DUI, and you’re anyone, that is the story. If I swear at a cop, or address a black cop using a racial epithet while in a drunken state, that is 1% of the story, the DUI is way bigger than that. But, if a politician does it, the swear word or racist term becomes the story, his life is over as he knew it.

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  12. Public employee unions must be banned. They are inimical to the democratic process. They collude with elected officials who vote them lush benefits using the taxpayer’s dollars.They shield law enforcement personnel from accountability.

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