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In the last few years, body cameras have become a staple of law enforcement agencies – but access to the footage they capture is still hard to obtain. A new law could make certain types of footage easier to access.
This story is a part of The People’s Reporter, a feature where the public can submit questions, readers vote on which questions they want answered and VOSD investigates.
The question from VOSD reader Richard Tanner: “What is the exact process and policy for the release of police body camera video? It seems to be a secret and closed process.”
To submit your question or vote on our next topic, click here.
In the last few years, body cameras have gone from a novelty to a staple of local law enforcement agencies.
The San Diego Police Department first began rolling out the cameras in 2014. The San Diego County Sheriff’s Department started purchasing the cameras in 2017. Since then, almost every law enforcement agency has inaugurated its own body camera program.
But while the cameras have become common, the footage recorded by them is not typically available to the public.
Even though the body cameras were championed by local leaders as a tool for transparency, the devices have largely been used to help police departments gather more evidence in criminal cases. The footage that is involved in a criminal investigation typically goes to the district attorney’s office and may be used at prosecutors’ discretion at trial. Only on rare occasions has the footage seen the light of day.
People who request the footage are often denied access outright. Sometimes they’re referred by law enforcement agencies to the courtroom where the trial was held. Copies of the videos are kept in the evidence room and seeing the videos requires one to petition the court — a process that can take several weeks.
Of course, defendants in criminal cases have access to the footage, and if it’s shown in the courtroom at trial, the public can catch it there. Under former San Diego Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman’s tenure, officials got into the habit of showing the footage to people who filed officer misconduct complaints — to remind citizens of their own bad behavior.
Still, officials insist that footage painting police in an unflattering light isn’t being buried. It gets routed to Internal Affairs, then the Community Review Board on Police Practices.
There’s been little consistency in the way body camera footage has been released over the years and that’s by design. The district attorney’s office gives the sheriff and local police chiefs the right to release and withhold body camera footage as they see fit after a review for potential criminal liability has been completed and as long as there is no pending criminal case in which it might be evidence.
A new state law was intended as a tool of real transparency.
SB 1421 gives the public access to police records involving various types of misconduct or investigations, including the audio and video evidence stemming from shootings and in-custody deaths. Different law enforcement agencies are responding to the new disclosure laws in different ways.
Eight local police unions have sued to stop the release of such records, and a judge ruled the records should be public. Other agencies, like the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department, say they’ve begun preparing body camera footage for release by redacting portions of the audio and video that are exempt under state law — for instance, the faces of civilian witnesses.
The judge temporarily froze the release of those records, however, to give the local police unions time to file an appeal.
In theory, there should be a lot of body camera footage available to the public, but if it doesn’t end up being part of an investigation or criminal case, it’s eventually deleted.
San Diego police officers are supposed to keep their devices on a stand-by mode that records video only in two-minute loops until they make an “enforcement-related contact,” at which point, they are supposed to begin recording audio and video continuously.
That type of contact, according to SDPD’s policies, includes “traffic stops, field interviews, detentions, arrests, persons present at radio calls who are accused of crimes, and consensual encounters in which the officer is attempting to develop reasonable suspicion on the subject of the encounter.”
The Sheriff’s Department has similar rules.
Footage that is relevant to a complaint made against an office or deputy can also end up with the Community Review Board on Police Practices – the oversight group for the San Diego Police Department, or to the Citizen’s Law Enforcement Review Board – the watchdog for the Sheriff’s Department.
SDPD retains video footage on different timetables, depending on the nature of the incident recorded. For example, insignificant contact with a member of the public, like a field interview that doesn’t lead to any further action or footage relating to a minor car accident, is deleted after as little as a few months.
Recordings regarding misdemeanor crimes and pursuits or detentions that don’t result in arrests are deleted after a year. Footage of all arrests and citations is kept for two years. Audio and video of serious incidents, including cases in which a suspect is injured or resists arrest, is kept for two and a half years. Recordings from major car crashes are kept the longest — for 10 years.
Meanwhile, recordings relating to officer-involved shootings, homicides and felonies are all kept until the cases are adjudicated.
The Sheriff’s Department’s policy only states that recordings related to criminal proceedings, complaints or similar situations “shall be preserved until the matter is resolved and/or in accordance with the law or whichever period of time is greater.”
Many of San Diego County’s eight other municipal police agencies have similar rules regarding body cameras.
For example, the Oceanside Police Department, which began implementing body-worn cameras last year, deletes most footage after six months unless it’s related to a pending criminal case, complaint or similar matter, a spokesman said. The La Mesa Police Department does the same.
Neither department typically releases body camera footage to the public, though, as it’s not required to.
In 2015, Assemblywoman Shirley Weber proposed a state law that would standardize the release of body camera policies across the state. It died after law enforcement groups pushed back.