A longstanding national debate about police transparency and privacy has been reignited in California with legislation that would require law enforcement agencies to release body camera video and recordings of fatal police shootings and other significant incidents.
The proposal, which comes amid a push across the U.S. for body camera recordings to be released more quickly after fatal police shootings, seeks to establish a statewide policy on when body camera footage and other audio and video recordings should be released.
The state Senate's Public Safety Committee has scheduled a hearing Tuesday on Assembly Bill 748, which would amend California's public records statute to limit the discretion that police departments have for withholding body camera videos. The proposed measure would require police departments to release video in cases where law enforcement officers use force or in incidents where it is believed there is a violation of law or public policy.
More than a dozen law enforcement organizations oppose the measure and many contend it should be up to local police departments to determine when, if ever, body camera footage should be released.
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State lawmakers have failed to pass a handful of different bills in the last few years that addressed body-worn video, including establishing policies on when officers should turn their cameras on and off and when the public would have access to videos.
Several California police departments, including the Los Angeles Police Department, maintain policies denying the disclosure of body camera videos and consider the footage to be investigative records that are exempt from the state's open records law.
"We have a patchwork of policies and in some instances, very little policy, as to when the public can access the information and when the public can't," said Assemblyman Phil Ting, who introduced the bill. "Body cameras were created to improve greater public trust between law enforcement and community members and without access to that video footage we're not really able to achieve those goals."
Ting, a Democrat, says the bill "strikes a fair balance" because it also carves out several exemptions, which allow police departments to withhold videos if there's more of a public interest in not disclosing the recordings and to withhold recordings that are part of an ongoing investigation for up to 90 days.
Advocates of the bill, including the American Civil Liberties Union, say the legislation is an important step forward in ensuring police transparency, especially after fatal police shootings.
"This is an area where California law really lags behind the rest of the country in allowing transparency," said Peter Bibring, the director of policing practices at the ACLU of Southern California.
Opponents argue that because the bill requires police to release the recordings after 90 days, it could compromise ongoing criminal investigations and disciplinary proceedings.
"This bill will taint ongoing police investigations and all but kills the impartiality of the investigation process," said Craig Lally, the president of the Los Angeles Police Protective League, the union that represents city police officers.