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From fatal police-involved shootings, to high-profile political investigations to federally recommended reforms, San Diego Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman has sent a clear message: She’s going to try and keep as much information from the public as she can.
During Zimmerman’s 18 months as chief, the department has been ranked near the bottom of national studies on police transparency and, at least once, she ignored the policies of her boss, Mayor Kevin Faulconer, on openness.
Here are four ways SDPD has left the public out of important issues of broad public interest:
In late April, a San Diego police officer fatally shot an unarmed man. A security camera captured the incident and someone who has watched the video said, under oath, that the footage shows the shooting was unprovoked.
The city is defending the shooting as justified, but has gone to great lengths to keep the video under wraps. It only turned over the video to the family of the man who was killed if the footage was sealed from public disclosure through a court order. (Voice of San Diego, along with inewsource, KPBS, 10 News and the Union-Tribune, is fighting in court to unseal the video.)
A good point made by the Washington Post’s Radley Balko, who addressed the shooting video and SDPD’s issues with transparency in general:
So Zimmerman believes not only that she has the right to keep body camera footage from the public, but also that she has the right to seize video taken by a camera owned by a private citizen and prevent the public from seeing that footage as well.
Nationwide, footage from controversial incidents have proven vital to ensuring public trust in police and prosecutorial actions. Zimmerman has even said in the past she would consider releasing video from disputed police shootings. But now we have one, and she’s not.
Last year, as ex-city councilman Carl DeMaio was running for Congress, he became embroiled in an intense fight with a former staffer who claimed DeMaio had sexually harassed him. (The former staffer ultimately pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice related to one part of the dispute.)
One of DeMaio’s first statements about the incident was that Zimmerman had personally called him to tell him the department had cleared him of sexual misconduct in its criminal investigation. But Zimmerman refused to confirm DeMaio’s account or release her phone and text message records that would show whether DeMaio’s claim was true.
During his campaign for mayor, Faulconer pledged that records related to city business would be made public even if they came from private cell phones. But Zimmerman didn’t follow that recommendation, and Faulconer doesn’t appear to have forced the issue. A big piece of the DeMaio mess could have been quickly put to rest. Instead it was never answered.
After community concerns about racial profiling and other police misconduct issues arose last year, former Chief William Lansdowne pitched officer body-worn cameras as a way to improve community trust.
“What the camera does is a visual and verbal recording of contacts between the Police Department,” Lansdowne said in January 2014. “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.”
But once the City Council allocated millions of dollars to outfit patrol officers with the cameras, SDPD’s position changed. Body cameras weren’t about transparency, but rather the footage would become evidence officers would use in their investigations and therefore shield from all public disclosure.
National recommendations on body camera usage call for the footage – with exceptions for privacy concerns – to be made public. Indeed, a nationwide study of police body cameras said SDPD was going against the trend by so severely restricting public access to footage.
In March, the U.S. Department of Justice issued a sharp critique of SDPD’s system for identifying and monitoring troubled officers. Zimmerman agreed with the findings, saying the program was “in need of a complete overhaul.” The reform of SDPD’s troubled officer system is the biggest recommendation still outstanding from the Justice Department’s report.
After the report came out, the department commissioned an internal report on the system, which concluded with a series of recommendations. Voice of San Diego obtained the report through a public records request — sort of. The department redacted all four pages of recommendations. Here’s what the key section of the report looks like:
SDPD didn’t reveal any of the recommendations because it said doing so would violate Zimmerman’s ability to encourage open discussions within the department without fear of them being made public. City legal officials said there’s a greater public interest in having these parts of the report hidden than disclosed.
In this, like everything else, we simply have to trust police are doing the right thing.