Last Updated on May 8, 2015 by Paulette Brown-Hinds
By McKenzie Jackson
California Black Media
A piece of legislation establishing guidelines for the use of body-worn cameras by law enforcement officers is one step closer to becoming law. Even though some of the state’s top cops dealt a blow to the bill last week, Assembly Bill 66 still managed to limp out of the Assembly Privacy and Consumer Protection Committee on April 30.
The bill in its original form barred police offers from reviewing footage from body cameras before writing reports. But leaders in law enforcement from across the state insisted they would not support the bill unless lawmakers changed that provision.
Assemblymember Shirley Weber (D-San Diego), the bill’s author, told California Black Media AB-66 would not have made it out of committee without that concession. She said the committee’s Democratic members would not vote for the bill without giving police officers the right to watch video recorded by body-cameras before writing their reports.
“We didn’t want it voted down because that starts us back at square one,” she said.
Supporters of body camera use are excited about the prospect of the bill becoming law soon. Yet many of them feel allowing cops to see the footage their body cameras record before writing police reports leaves room for officers to manipulate accounts of what happened between them and citizens.
Attorney Randy Perry, a representative of the California Association of Highway Patrolmen, takes the opposite position. He said not allowing officers to see video before writing reports would cause liabilities and compromise accuracy.
After much debate, six Assembly Democrats voted in favor of AB-66. One Democrat, Jim Cooper of Elk Grove, a former Sacramento Sheriff’s captain, and four Republicans did not vote.
If signed into law, Weber said the bill would give the state a broad policy for body camera use but the details of how it is implemented will be left up to local or state police departments.
“Now, if it is a death or a violent act, they have the opportunity to look at the footage before they write the report,” she said. “If a jurisdiction has different a policy, they can maintain that policy. Individual jurisdictions can have their own policy as to whether they can review [the video footage]or not.”
For example, the Oakland police department currently requires officers to write reports before they can watch body camera footage. That policy will not have to change if AB-66 becomes law. Oakland Police Chief, Sean Whent, spoke in favor of not allowing cops to review body cam video footage at the committee hearing. He said no police officer in his department has ever been disciplined if his or her report did not match what happened on camera word-for-word. He said discrepancies happen sometimes.
Currently, the assembly’s Appropriations Committee is reviewing the enactment to see if it makes financial sense. After that, it will go to the assembly floor for a vote.
Meanwhile, Weber continues to share information about the bill. It is not an “I got you story,” she explains.
“I just want accuracy as far as what is taking place,” she said. “We have people with their own cellphones recording all kinds of stuff. So it’s not that we don’t have footage. The question then becomes, whose footage is the best footage and most credible?.”
As the body camera bill moves closer to reality in California, the debate on how police officers interact with Black men rages across the country.
Since the February 2012 shooting of unarmed, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin by a neighbor and community watchman in Sanford, Fla., there have been several fatalincidents involving police and African-American boys or men. Those deaths include: 43-year-old Eric Garner in Staten Island, N.Y.; 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland; 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.; 50-year-old Walter Scott in North Charleston, S.C.; and 25-year-old Freddie Gray in Baltimore.
Gray’s death from a spinal injury he allegedly received while in the custody of law enforcement officers sparked fiery protests and rioting that fixed the nation’s eyes on Maryland’s largest city.
With a history of brewing tensions between the police and African Americans, the unrest in Baltimore quickly erupted into looting of businesses; violent clashes between citizens and law enforcement officers; and the burning of several buildings.
Baltimore State Attorney Marilyn Mosby announced May 1 that her office ruled Gray’s death a homicide. An investigation done in conjunction with Baltimore city police found probably cause to charge the six police officers involved in Gray’s arrest with crimes, including two of them with murder and manslaughter respectively.
That same day, the U.S. Department of Justice said the administration of President Barack Obama will provide $20 million in grants to dozens of local police departments as part of a body camera pilot program. Three days earlier, the Los Angeles Police Commission approved a policy clearing the way for widespread use of body cameras by patrol officers.
Several Golden State municipalities – including Rialto, Union City, and Pleasanton – already have law enforcement agencies that use body cameras.
Weber said the body camera bill is critical in light of what is happening across the U.S. “The data shows California has one highest rate or numbers of murders by police officers in the nation,” she said. “Maybe ours hasn’t reached to the point of a Baltimore or something like that but we have had similar things.”