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.