Twice in recent months San Diego police officers were present at shootings while cameras on their bodies captured what happened.
But, at least for now, the Police Department says those videos won’t become public.
SDPD is gearing up to outfit all of its nearly 1,000 patrol officers with cameras in response to community concerns over racial profiling and officer misconduct. The idea behind the cameras is to protect officers from false complaints, and to provide documentation when they do behave improperly, among other reasons.
Wednesday afternoon, Chief Shelley Zimmerman told a City Council committee she hoped to have the cameras on officers in the department’s Central, Southeastern and Mid-City Divisions by the end of June with more to follow after that.
Right now, 10 officers in Central Division, which includes downtown and surrounding neighborhoods, are outfitted with cameras as part of a pilot program. An officer wearing a body camera arrived at a crime scene following an officer-involved shooting on Jan. 9 in Mount Hope . Another officer wearing a camera captured a Feb. 26 shooting downtown  as well.
We filed a public records request for the videos. The department declined to release them, saying they were part of an investigation. The department said it didn’t have to release them even after the investigations ended, and gave no indication the footage would become public.
That raises a significant question: How useful could the cameras be at reassuring the community about serious police incidents when no one’s allowed to see what they capture?
That approach troubles Terry Francke, the lawyer for public records watchdog group Californians Aware. He agrees that SDPD can legally keep the records private forever. But that doesn’t mean the department can’t release them once an investigation ends. At that point, Francke said, the department has “every reason to make it public.”
“The very purpose of body cameras is to show what an officer saw — or could have seen — at the time of a disputed incident,” Francke said. “For better or worse, a public that up to now has had only the officer’s word to go on should now have the right to evaluate investigative conclusions with its own eyes.”
Indeed, transparency was a major argument when Zimmerman’s predecessor, William Lansdowne, began his public push for the cameras.
“What the camera does is a visual and verbal recording of contacts between the Police Department,” Lansdowne said in January. “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.”
Zimmerman told the Council committee Wednesday that the department was wading through lots of policy issues and figuring out the best way to do things. There might be different rules for public disclosure and how long the department keeps the video, she said, depending on whether the footage was related to an investigation, evidence or neither.
The department hasn’t made any final decisions on whether videos will be available through records requests.
“We’ll be exploring all that with our legal team,” police spokesman Kevin Mayer said.
Another major policy call involves when the cameras would operate. Currently, Zimmerman said officers are required to turn on the camera when they make an enforcement contact, such as a traffic stop, field interview or arrest. They would turn off the camera when the contact ends.