Monday, May 8, 2017
[Santa Barbara County] Police point of view: Recent grand jury report reviews police body-worn cameras, doesn't address release of footage
In a report released on April 18, the Santa Barbara County grand jury stated that police use of body-worn cameras had the “potential of providing greater transparency” for the public and police but did not mention that the footage is technically exempt from public disclosure.
During the past few years, civil rights groups have called for greater transparency from police departments following a rash of high-profile police-involved shootings across the U.S. At least 72 departments in the U.S. adopted or established body-camera programs for police as of January 2015, according to a report by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in Southern California.
The Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office and the Guadalupe Police Department (GPD) are currently the only two agencies in the county where police have body-worn cameras. The GPD equips all of its officers with cameras. The Sheriff’s Office has 30 body-cameras deployed between officers with the Isla Vista Foot Patrol, school resource deputies, community resource deputies, and court bailiffs, according to the department’s public information officer Kelly Hoover.
Like with the policy on patrol car dash cameras, Hoover said the Sheriff’s Office policy doesn’t release body-camera footage.
The Sun requested dash camera footage of the October 2013 Sheriff’s Office-involved shooting of Jeremy Bordegaray in Carpinteria, but was denied because of active litigation. Bordegaray, who’s currently incarcerated at the California Men’s Colony in San Luis Obispo, alleges excessive force against the Sheriff’s Office after being shot by deputies when he attempted to steal a patrol car, court records show.
The GPD also doesn’t release body-camera footage without a court order, although Chief Gary Hoving hasn’t received a request for footage.
“It all depends on the nature of the request,” Hoving said. “Most of the time the footage is capturing footage relating to an ongoing investigation.”
California law doesn’t require police departments to release body-camera footage but leaves those decisions up to each department’s discretion. Often police in the state cite exemptions from the California Public Records Act to not release footage. At the moment, such records may only be released with a court order.
Last year, for the second straight year, the California Legislature failed to pass two bills that would’ve either boosted transparency or restricted access to body-camera footage.
The issue of privacy with body-cameras is holding back some lawmakers, such as when a police officer wearing a camera enters a private home. Does the officer turn the camera off or keep recording?
In another issue regarding privacy, a bill by Assemblyman Evan Low (D-Campbell) would’ve given the families of slain police officers the choice of releasing the footage of their fallen loved ones, but Low pulled the bill after insufficient support.
“It’s disappointing that a very modest bill that would simply deal with the video or audio of a peace officer being murdered wasn’t able to pass this year,” Low said in a statement provided to the Los Angeles Times, adding that he planned on reintroducing the bill this year.
The ACLU generally supports the release of footage as long as it balances privacy with public interest in transparency.
“Body-cameras don’t provide transparency if the video is never released to the public,” the ACLU stated in its 2015 report. “Setting the right balance between privacy and transparency in public access is tricky, but some situations are clear: When the video captures a critical incident (such as a serious use of force), when there are allegations of misconduct regarding the interaction captured on video, or when the subject of the video requests it, body-camera video should be released.”
The Sheriff’s Office started considering the use of body-cameras at the end of 2014. Lompoc considered them too, but instead opted for dash cameras for its 13 patrol cars in June 2015.
Before Barack Obama left the presidency, he announced federal funding to purchase 50,000 body-cameras for police. It’s not clear where that funding stands, however, since President Donald Trump was elected. In an October 2015 interview with The Guardian, Trump supported the U.S. government funding of police body-cameras.
“Some of these departments have plenty of money, and some of them don’t,” Trump told The Guardian. “And if they like the idea of the cameras, they need federal funding.”
However, in the same interview, Trump said those cameras shouldn’t be mandatory.
Guadalupe Police Chief Hoving is pleased with the overall use of his department’s cameras, but he said they’re not perfect because they don’t tell the whole story.
“They’re definitely not foolproof because they have a single point of view that may not capture the overall event,” he said. “But it has audio to go with it, which captures information outside the frame. And capturing all of the facts is the ultimate goal.”
May 3, 2017
Santa Maria Sun
By David Minsky