Two weeks ago, when protests in City Heights raged after the grand jury decision in Ferguson, Mo., San Diego Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman assured residents that there was a record of everything that happened. SDPD officers were wearing their new body cameras, she said.

“It all boils down to community trust,” Zimmerman told KPBS.

But here’s the thing about those videos. Once again, you aren’t allowed to see them. The police department denied our formal records request for the protest footage.

On KPBS and elsewhere, Zimmerman said she would consider making police body camera videos public in certain circumstances, such as the shooting in Ferguson that left Michael Brown dead at the hands of Officer Darren Wilson. But it’s becoming clear that would only happen in the most extreme situations. So far Zimmerman has denied requests to make camera footage available when officers were involved in shootings and these protests.


Support Independent Journalism in San Diego Today

 Learn more about member benefits

The reason is that SDPD doesn’t view body cameras primarily as a tool for transparency, like it was billed when city leaders began discussing the cameras in earnest earlier this year. Instead, it’s a way for the department to gather more evidence in criminal cases. This is the legal reason the department has said it’s allowed to keep all footage out of public view.

I asked police spokesman Kevin Mayer how officers getting additional evidence helps bolster community trust like Zimmerman said. Police supervisors, internal affairs investigators and the civilian review board are allowed to see the videos in certain cases.

“Having a video recording of an incident with access by those listed in Chief Zimmerman’s statement promotes public trust because it’s one additional piece of evidence to help determine the factual circumstance of an enforcement contact,” Mayer told me.

In general, the department’s body camera policy advises against recording peaceful protests. But the City Heights protests weren’t peaceful. Police officers were hit with rocks and full water bottles and officers were spit on, according to SDPD. Six protestors were arrested.

Zimmerman told KPBS that the body cameras went on when officers deemed the protest an unlawful assembly, which is consistent with department policy.

No one thinks all body camera videos should be public – an officer on his way to the restroom or interviewing a domestic violence victim hardly seems to be in the public interest.

But in certain cases, when police discharge their weapons and when protests start to get heated, people may want to know if both the police and the community acted appropriately. Zimmerman’s the one who gets to decide if the community will trust the department based on video evidence or simply her words.

    This article relates to: Government, News, Police, Police Misconduct, Public Safety, Share

    Written by Liam Dillon

    Liam Dillon is senior reporter and assistant editor for Voice of San Diego. He leads VOSD’s investigations and writes about how regular people interact with local government. What should he write about next? Please contact him directly at liam.dillon@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5663.

    25 comments
    Mike Eck
    Mike Eck

    Correct Shelly.  These are an investigative tool to catch the "Dirty Blue" protected amongst your ranks.  In order to catch these Dirty Blue criminals these cameras need to be on at all times and the videos need to be treated as evidence to avoid its mishandling (loss).  Mayor Falconer are you listening to your people?  Get it together!

    barb graham
    barb graham subscriber

    This chief shouldn't spout meaningless rhetoric about "community trust" when she is not really doing anything to foster it. The cameras were MEANT for transparency, remember?


    Now the cops have twisted it into an "evidence collection tool" to be used against citizens.


    What is it going to take to reform our police department? A new day is coming when we, the regular people, have had enough and will be forced into activism. 

    Sovi Miller
    Sovi Miller subscriber

    Whether they provide transparency or not, it is a start. Jacob Faust would not have been shot in the back if cameras had been rolling that night. The SDPD has a long history of lies, they abuse, they murder.  It may take a law suit to reveal what the videos hold, but at least they would be admissible evidence of what really transpired in a shooting. As far as privacy issues go, people may not realize that SDPD has been recording witness testimonies without their knowledge or consent (hidden recorders) for years. So, they have always pretty much disregarded privacy laws as far as recording goes.  

    Bill Bradshaw
    Bill Bradshaw subscribermember

    I don’t get it.  Just what do Liam Dillon and the cop haters (e.g., Sarah K, “....daily, run-of-the mill inappropriate police abuse of power.....”) really want, daily postings of all body camera videos on You Tube?

    Zimmerman is relatively new in her position, and I appreciate and support her “go slow” approach on video disclosures.  It’s one thing for former Chief Lansdowne to extoll cameras on his way out the door.  Zimmerman has to live with whatever body of practice builds up over time, and has enough on her plate without an administrative hassle that could become a circus if videos are made public every time an encounter results in a gripe or some reporter has a slow news day and wants to stir the pot.

    As Zimmerman and most knowledgeable observers point out, the primary value of these cameras is deterrence to both cops and civilians.

    Liam Dillon
    Liam Dillon memberadministrator

    @Bill Bradshaw Hi Bill. Thanks for your comment. I must inform you that I am not a) a cop hater or b) a man made out of straw.


    I agree "daily postings of all body camera videos on YouTube" would be ridiculous and counter-productive. However, I think that in certain limited circumstances where there is public interest in an interaction between police and citizens -- I outlined some in my story -- then footage, which the public is paying for, should be accessible to the public. It isn't just about cops doing bad things. It's also about knocking down false claims from the public that cops did bad things. I've tackled that issue before: http://voiceofsandiego.org/2014/03/28/fact-check-do-police-cameras-decrease-police-complaints/.


    Hope this helps clarify my position.

    Bill Bradshaw
    Bill Bradshaw subscribermember

    @Liam Dillon @Bill Bradshaw  Liam,  I didn’t call you a “cop hater” and certainly didn't intend to infer that.  Notice I didn’t say “Liam Dillon and OTHER cop haters” (who are rife as some of the comments on this story demonstrate).  As for your "straw" comment, I’m afraid I don’t get that either. 

    On “....limited circumstances where there is public interest....”, the question, of course, is “Who decides” what constitutes public interest?  This area is fraught with potential legal minefields, and a guy like Marco Gonzalez could drive the cops nuts with nuisance requests.


    My guess is that the DA and maybe CA will eventually weigh in to provide some guidance. 



    Liam Dillon
    Liam Dillon memberadministrator

    @Bill Bradshaw Thanks, Bill. I was trying to say that you were turning my argument for disclosure of body camera videos into a "straw man" by saying that I want all of them posted on YouTube. I don't.


    Good point on "who decides" if there's a public interest. I think there should be a clear policy on situations that should be considered as such rather than leaving all decisions in every case up to the police chief, whomever that might be.

    Nicolas Abel
    Nicolas Abel subscribermember

    "SDPD: Body cameras are for evidence, not transparency."


    This really disturbs me

    Not sure what else to say.


    shawn fox
    shawn fox subscriber

    Speaking of ferguson. 


    "It is common for African-American teens to walk in the middle of the street and block in cars at intersections," said the man, who has lived in the neighborhood for half a decade. "We have been stopped at intersections in Bevo and our car attacked by teens who pound on the car -- laughing at us."


    I just found that quote to be interesting considering that one of the things prompting the confrontation between Officer Wilson and Michael Brown was that the officer asked him to walk on the sidewalk.   Now it seems like the general feeling expressed by commenters on a lot of message boards is that the police can't be trusted at all.  What percentage of police stops result in these tragic incidents?  0.001 %?  1%  3%?  


    http://www.foxnews.com/us/2014/12/08/fbi-called-to-investigate-whether-attack-on-bosnian-woman-hate-crime/

    Sara_K
    Sara_K subscribermember

    Dear The Public:


    Pay for these neat electronics. They'll help keep us accountable!

    Just kidding. Your money is just for our CYA purposes.

    shawn fox
    shawn fox subscriber

    @Sara_K Not sure what CYA stands for, but if I am accused of something my lawyer can request the "evidence" assuming that it wasn't lost right?  Therefore I'm not sure that your statement is entirely fair.  Even if they are only used for evidence, I can still see a useful purpose for building a defense case.  Also are there possible privacy issues if all requests have to be honored even in cases where no crime occurred but some organization asks for the camera of Officer Joe on 12/18/2014 at 10pm - 12pm?  Is there any reason that a defendant might not want the video released to the media in the case where camera is evidence in a particular case?  Perhaps charges get dropped for some reason, but something on the video is embarrassing?  It seems like most commenters are assuming that the police are always up to no good, as if they are an enemy of the public, but perhaps this isn't such a bad policy.

    Sara_K
    Sara_K subscribermember

    @shawn fox In August, Zimmerman indicated the cameras were also to decrease instances of racial profiling: http://voiceofsandiego.org/2014/08/14/zimmerman-i-will-not-tolerate-any-instances-of-racial-profiling/

    At the time, the community celebrated. While these cameras may still have a benefit of internal monitoring of police interactions with the public as expressed in her Zimmerman's prior statements, absent intensive litigation it seems people involved in your average, daily, run-of-the-mill inappropriate police abuse of power incidences will not see justice increased as a result of the new devices.


    While I see your point, part of the problem nationally is that law enforcement will go to great lengths to protect its own over protecting the public.

    PS: I support law enforcement. We need to offer better pay to retain "good" cops and greater investments in training and mental health services. 


    PPS: Google CYA. First Wiki response.

    shawn fox
    shawn fox subscriber

    @Sara_K @shawn fox Thank you but I think that you are using a false dichotomy.  If the police want to protect themselves, that doesn't automatically mean that they are choosing to do so at the expense of the public as you've implied.  The way I see it, the vast majority of arrests are lawful.  Therefore, body cameras will automatically benefit the police in far more instances then it will benefit the person arrested.  That doesn't imply anything negative.  Unfortunately the percentages are probably deceptive for this type of issue.  Another point is that if the camera helps to prove guilt, then public does benefit.  I want police to catch criminals and put them away.  If body cameras can help with that, then fantastic!  I'm not really sure if I want police body cameras to be widely accessible, especially in cases where an investigation or trial is ongoing.  Now if they become available for request after someone is cleared or the case is over, that is another matter which is debatable.  This is an interesting issue.

    Sara_K
    Sara_K subscribermember

    @shawn fox If I as a member of the public am contributing not only  to police salaries but the new cameras (both investments which I support), I want victims of improper use of police force (and their advocates) to have access to that footage. 


    As a white law-abiding female citizen, I don't anticipate personally experiencing police brutality and, as I age, I don't anticipate police sexual impropriety (which is kind of naive, actually). The scenario in which I most could picture myself in a negative encounter would be as a peaceful protester, well within my rights, but scenarios of unlawful arrest, trumped up charges, and police brutality against women like me have occurred in San Diego at least as recently as Occupy SD. 


    Should something like that unfortunately occur, I should have the right to freely access any footage taped by police cameras to aid in my defense and potential prosecution if they were unlawfully brutal. 


    This conversation is not casting unfair aspersions on police - some bad actors have put the entire force in a bad light, and they have compromised the safety and reputations of ethical officers. That's the reason Zimmerman is the new Police Chief in the first place. 

    Chris Brewster
    Chris Brewster subscribermember

    There is an odd sense that videos of this nature are going to resolve arguments about what took place. A lot of money and angst are in play and I have the sense that the videos will rarely work to peoples' satisfaction. There is a landmark case in San Diego involving a former police officer who recorded audio of an arrested person in his police car and used the recording to vindicate himself when she later complained. Sometimes these sorts of things help bring clarity. Often they don't.

    shawn fox
    shawn fox subscriber

    @Chris Brewster Can you cite at least one case where video existed but didn't help the other person?  Even if what you are saying is true, I don't see it as a problem.  Considering that the police often have to arrest people that actually are criminals, it makes sense for them to have some protection against false accusations or defense attorneys who are looking to help their clients beat something with a legal technicality.  I'd like it if the videos could also occasionally help a defendant as well but even if they don't I'm not against the police having them.

    Chris Brewster
    Chris Brewster subscribermember

    Mr. Fox: What I am suggesting is that the type of cameras that are involved here are not going to give a full (video) picture of the entire event. They will give a partial picture based on when the camera started and stopped, the quality of the video, the direction the camera is pointed, etc., etc. I think some imagine that every or most events will be videotaped in a way that is definitive regarding what each party did (e.g. like the NFL on their TV). I don't see that happening.  Among other things, you will only be able to view the person the police officer is interacting with, not the police officer with the camera. I have not, and I'm not sure if others, have seen a demonstration of what might appear on one of these videos in a typical police/citizen interaction or particularly one that leads to physical arrest. This is going to involve a very large expense. Will it have meaningful benefit? I don't know, but I do believe that most people imagine some clear image of the entire event, which I don't think is possible.

    barb graham
    barb graham subscriber

    @shawn fox @Chris Brewster "occasionally help a defendant?" Really?

    THE ENTIRE POINT OF THIS WAS FOR POLICE TRANSPARENCY, NOT A CYA TOOL.


    So yeah, this alleged transparency, the whole point of this thing was to help defendants. Not the cops. It can be used for both but they appear to be denying us that benefit.

    rhylton
    rhylton subscriber

    The SDPD is acting/saying/writing in ways that lead to the conclusion that videotape is different. From all that I know, from my reading, Chief Zimmerman appears to be saying that videotape  from body-cams will not be released unless San Diego becomes Ferguson-west, and only if she feels the urge to release it.

    shawn fox
    shawn fox subscriber

    Just curious; is the media able to get other pieces of evidence during an ongoing investigation?  Are they saying that video data is different from other evidence?  I'm not clear about whether other pieces of evidence can be sealed from the public requests during an investigation.  It would be useful to know how requests for video different from requests from other kinds of evidence.

    shawn fox
    shawn fox subscriber

    There is no way that cameras can be on for entire shift.  We'd have a gazillion bytes of useless data.  How did we get by during all of those years without video?

    rhylton
    rhylton subscriber

    Documents created by public officials, during the  "execution" of their duties, are public documents. No one would argue that a paper or electronic memorandum (email) is disclosable under the CCPRA when such a document is created by a public official, including cops. However, here we have public documents that are imbued with magical powers that would automatically exclude them, except when public passions are aflame. Why is that so?  I suppose it is partly due to the irrefutable nature of a video.


    Methinks that public passions are inflamed by the zeal for secrecy that too often creates a coverup; the antithesis of the transparency to which the chief claims to aspire.


    It is the height, rather depth, of fallacy or hypocrisy to state or imply that every bit of footage recorded on the street or elsewhere is part of some ongoing investigation; the position taken by the SDPD when I asked for footage of seven stops that occurred on 9/14/2014. Indeed; I suspect that being part of an ongoing investigation is the most powerful legal basis upon which disclosure may be refused. Zimmerman policy is probably an insufficient basis for blanket invocation. 


    I would love to see a lawyer's comment.


    The inept police officers who records themselves going into or in the loo are making  statements that no one understands and I suppose that rights to privacy trumps  disclosure of their "shortcomings".

    Bruce Bogers
    Bruce Bogers subscriber

    So, a tool supposed to protect the public from police abuse is going to be only used against us in a court of law. If police can turn them off and on at will and can ONLY be seen by police, I don't see much use for them. I can hear it now in any case where a policeman is accused...."Sorry, the camera wasn't turned on".

    What needs to happen is that those cameras need to be turned on at start of shift with harsh penalties for blocking or making them unusable, like termination. And some kind of review board (with no police involvement) to watch them. An ADA or low level lawyer can protect rights and/or edit "bathroom footage" or protect identities from public view. As it is, SDPD is just going to take a tool to protect us and use it against the citizens it's supposed to protect. Shame on Chief Zimmerman.

    Matty Azure
    Matty Azure subscriber

    Dear Chief,

    I concur with your policy!

    Signed,

    Vincent Montague, Cleveland PD