When would the San Diego Police Department release body camera footage to the public?

Maybe in the case of a riot, Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman said Wednesday.

Zimmerman was talking about the department’s experience with officer-worn body cameras over the first year they’ve been widely used. During that time, she’s taken an increasingly hard line on when she might make footage public. In the beginning, she said she might do it if there was a situation similar to last year’s civil unrest in Ferguson, Mo.

But in a recent court document arguing against the release of security camera footage from an officer-involved shooting of an unarmed mentally ill man, Zimmerman emphasized that she’d never released any footage before – save one traffic stop to show how the cameras worked – and doesn’t have any plans to.

NBC 7 San Diego’s Paul Kreuger asked Zimmerman at a press conference to clear up the discrepancy.

“There will always be exceptions,” Zimmerman said. Kreuger asked her to elaborate. She replied:

We Stand Up for You. Will You Stand Up for Us?

“It could be again for public safety. It could be, as we have seen in other cities where public safety is at risk, where people are damaging property, assaulting people, in a riot type situation. There could be exceptions, yes. And that’s where you’d have to weigh the public safety versus the due process of whoever that individual is.”

On its face, Zimmerman’s argument is a bit strange for a police officer tasked with keeping the peace. She’s saying that the peace must be broken for the public to get access to records captured by devices paid for with taxpayer money. And even then, releasing footage would still be her choice. Zimmerman refused to release body camera footage of protests last year in City Heights that turned violent.

Publicizing body camera footage would hurt someone’s ability to get a fair trial, Zimmerman argues. She was especially colorful in her defense of that point Wednesday, citing both the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution.

“This isn’t about us versus them,” she said. “This is about we. We the people, which happen to be the first three words of the preamble to our Constitution. Our decision not to release video evidence is about the protection of all of our citizens.”

All of this is a far cry from what was originally pledged when the department first began talking about body cameras. During his pitch to City Council in January 2014, then-Chief William Lansdowne emphasized transparency.

Police chief says it would take civil unrest for her to consider making body camera footage public.

“What the camera does is a visual and verbal recording of contacts between the Police Department,” Lansdowne said. “Everybody gets to look at them and find out if they’re acting correctly and properly. It protects the officers as well as the citizens.”

The footage also is restricted for those who have made complaints against officers. Zimmerman said Wednesday that citizens who have filed complaints will only get to see the footage of what happened if the department’s Internal Affairs unit decides to let them.

    This article relates to: Must Reads, Police, Public Safety

    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.

    Victor Torres
    Victor Torres subscribermember

    Translation from bureaucrat-speak: I'm not interested in the public's trust or integrity, so long as my lawyers say I can hide behind "due process."

    Question: How does blurring the identifying details impair due process?

    michael-leonard subscriber

    Chief Zimmerman says SDPD might release video in cases where it might quell rioting. 

    Wait, didn't she say just a couple of days ago that SDPD policy would not release video because it would incite violence?

    WHAT?! Does she think we're all stupid, or just not paying attention?

    C'mon mainstream media -- get on this!

    Elmer Walker
    Elmer Walker subscriber

    The Blue Wall of silence continues. The Police Command structure has been allowed to grow and promote it's own. They have known about irregularities over the years and hidden this from citizens. Now one of their own is still in charge and comes up with totally sophmoric reasons for not releasing body camera footage. Just a reason to maintain power and protect fellow officers, even when that office commits a crime.

    Chris Brewster
    Chris Brewster subscribermember

    What's the opinion of her boss, the Mayor? When police issues come up in New York, the media make the Mayor accountable and he responds. Here, not so. 

    Kenneth Malbrough
    Kenneth Malbrough subscribermember

    @Chris Brewster  I agree with you 100%, the buck stops with Mayor!  I would also add that we (Citizens of San Diego) must take some of the blame for allowing the SDPD to purchase this equipment without first having input on how the camera's will be used along with the process for releasing the data/video to the public.

    We may have a opportunity to force this issue, the police chief wants to purchase an additional 1,000 cameras. Now is the time for San Diego citizens to email to their council district and the mayors offices about their concerns and demands for change regarding the release of the body camera data/video back to the public before approving the purchases of the additional cameras. 

    rhylton subscriber

    @Kenneth Malbrough @Chris Brewster I write, or at least try to write, to the Chef, The Mayor and each Council member, at least once per week. I fear that the City Council may have been outmanoeuvred by our Chief and the other jogger.

    BTW, unless I am mistaken, the approach that you have proposed is somewhat similar to the ACLU's opposition to the acquisition and deployment of body-cams in the City of Los Angeles.

    DavidM subscriber

    Eighty-three pages of opposition, much of which is a media and social media analysis by experts concluding that, surprise, the public doesn't trust police when shooting stories are reported.  Several pages are given up to concern that some member of the public wants to arrest an officer, and called the City Attorney to let them know.  Zimmerman calls it a "threat" (which might be true only if the officers resists, I guess).  She contends that officers are assaulted (which may well be a record of the number of arrests, but not number of convictions or charges).  

    It is very interesting that the opposition blames attention on the events in Ferguson (where a cop was not charged) but ignores the events in Baltimore, or elsewhere, where cops were charged. 

    I just keep thinking of Chris Brewster's comment to the last Dumanis article: "Imperious."  Zimmerman has spent so much time as a cop she's blind to what the public perceives, and looks at the negative reaction to truly stupid comments as a "threat."  Like the evil baron watching peasants with pitchforks approach the castle she just doesn't understand what everyone is so upset about.  

    We've met your cops Ms. Zimmerman; we are not pleased with them, and even less pleased with how you supervise and train them.  Daring people to riot before you will agree to the transparency demanded (and promised), is ridiculous.

    Imperious, and blind.  What a crazy mix.

    DavidM subscriber

    @Derek Hofmann It doesn't stop a whole lot of agencies, all around the country the country and the world.

    But what works elsewhere is not what Zimmerman care about; she's "special."