While Los Angeles looks to revise its police body-camera policy to allow for more transparency, a state assemblyman's bill that would force cops to simply release certain body-cam footage is advancing through the California Legislature.
Assembly Bill 748, introduced by Assemblyman Phil Ting of San Francisco, was approved this week by the Senate Public Safety Committee. It still needs to jump a few Senate committee hurdles, get full Senate approval and go back to the Assembly before Gov. Jerry Brown would have a chance to sign it, according to Ting's spokeswoman.
The law would require California law enforcement agencies to release body-cam footage in use-of-force or alleged police misconduct cases, with some exceptions. If privacy is a concern, innocents' faces could be blurred or blacked out. "This bill allows a law enforcement agency to withhold a body-camera video or audio recording relating to a matter of public concern if the agency demonstrates that public interest in nondisclosure outweighs public interest," according to a fact sheet for the legislation.
Ting's bill would tweak the California Public Records Act, a law that allows journalists and members of the public to get their hands on government records. Members of the public could use the PRA to request to see police body-cam footage — where available — of use-of-force and alleged misconduct incidents and expect to get it immediately or at least within 120 days if it's being withheld for investigation, according to Ting's spokeswoman.
"It's time we let the footage speak for itself," Ting said in a statement. "Withholding these recordings is perceived as hiding information, and this only causes mistrust, especially when there are incidents of alleged officer-involved uses of force."
The Los Angeles Police Department plans to roll out body cameras for all its patrol cops. So far only a fraction of its officers have body cams. On top of that, its policy generally forbids release of footage to the public. In fact, the legislation appears to have been inspired, in part, by LAPD Chief Charlie Beck's selective release of video in separate cases where cops opened fire on suspects.
"In October 2016, LAPD Chief Charlie Beck released footage of the shooting death of Carnell Snell Jr., showing that Snell was holding a gun before he was shot," according to the bill's fact sheet. "Beck released the footage in order to quell public outrage but did not release the footage for the Brendon Glenn fatal shooting."
Glenn was allegedly harassing customers outside a Venice bar last year when a responding officer fatally shot him. Although Beck recommended prosecution of the officer who pulled the trigger, surveillance video of the confrontation was withheld.
We reached out to LAPD but didn't get a response.
The ACLU of Southern California says in a policy statement that LAPD's body-cam policy "completely fails to provide for any public access to body-camera video." Last year, after a spate of police shootings and alleged misdeeds nationwide was captured on video, the Los Angeles Police Commission, the civilian body that sets policy for the department, began a process of reevaluating its body-cam rules. This year it opened up the process of coming up with new rules to the public.
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"With AB 748, body cameras may achieve their purpose as law enforcement oversight mechanisms by giving Californians access to critical footage, including incidents of police violence and misconduct," Lizzie Buchen, an ACLU legislative advocate, said in a statement.
ACLU of Southern California senior staff attorney Peter Bibring says the legislation would override the local police commission's efforts to increase transparency by creating statewide rules that limit cops' ability to withhold footage. "This legislation not only reflects the enormous importance of public access, it recognizes the way denying public access undermines trust," he says.
"I think this will not only help promote accountability and transparency but will also help departments build trust," Bibring says.
And still, police would rather you not be looking over their shoulders all the time. Craig Lally, president of the powerful cop union known as the Los Angeles Police Protective League, said via email, "This bill will taint ongoing police investigations and all but kills the impartiality of the investigation process. With over 1.2 million calls for service annually, complying with the bill also threatens to drain more police resources, potentially leading to less officers on the street."