LOS ANGELES (CN) – California lawmakers advanced a pair of police reform bills this week aimed at increasing access to officer misconduct records and establishing statewide procedures for releasing videos from police body-worn and patrol car-mounted camera.
In a 6-1 vote, the Senate Judiciary Committee passed AB 748 which aims to establish statewide regulations on the release of police camera videos and the ways in which departments can use and store data.
Calls for transparency and accountability in the wake of police killings of unarmed individuals – such as in the 2014 shooting death of Michael Brown by a Ferguson, Missouri officer – spurred the use of police body cameras nationwide.
If the bill is signed into law, it will require police departments to release videos from “critical incidents” after 45 days. After the first deadline, departments can request 15 day extensions.
The bill – which was modeled after the Los Angeles Police Department’s video release policy – defines a “critical incident” as one involving an officer’s use of force or a violation of department policy by an officer.
Assemblyman and AB 748 author Phil Ting, D-San Francisco, told the committee that current release policies vary for jurisdictions across the state, often allowing police departments to delay the release of videos by saying they relate to incidents under investigation.
“The current method doesn’t engender transparency, which is the whole point of body cameras,” Ting said. “This bill will build greater public trust and set a baseline across the state.”
Jonathan Feldman, legislative advocate with the California Police Chiefs Association, said the bill would fail at creating a “consistent framework” of agencies and departments across the state.
“Taking what the LAPD has done and forcing it onto other departments is problematic,” Feldman said, “especially with small departments that have only five or six officers.”
Ting said that “broad generalizations” comparing the bill to the LAPD’s video release policy are “not correct,” adding AB 748 doesn’t “have a firm release date like LA.”
A new policy requiring public release of video and audio from LAPD body cameras, drones and patrol cars went into effect April 19, officially reversing the department’s previous, longstanding position of withholding such material.
Video and other media from security cameras or bystanders’ cellphones would also be available to the public under the LAPD plan.
The LA City Council voted in June 2016 to allocate $59 million to fund body cameras for officers, and now every officer is equipped with one, according to the LAPD.
Feldman said it wasn’t clear how AB 748 would reshape or potentially overstep the role of police commissions or district attorneys, some of which are tasked with reviewing police camera videos and making determinations of misconduct.
Jim Ewart, general counsel at the California News Publishers Association, said the bill is needed to prevent police departments from “stonewalling footage that could be embarrassing to the department” such as videos that show abuses of power or unlawful use of force by an officer.
The association proposed the original version of the bill in 2017, citing the difficulty journalists encountered in receiving body-camera footage of police officers accused of excessive use of force and shootings.
The California Public Records Act requires that public records be made available to the public. According to the bill’s text, the law also exempts police department investigation records from public records requirements.
Ewert said with the ubiquity of camera phones, the bill would provide police departments a chance to “provide an official account” of incidents and “quell raw emotions” after events such as police shootings.
“This bill balances the rights to privacy with the right to access public information,” Ewert said. “It also considers the rights of law enforcement to use police camera videos as an investigatory tool, but the point is to provide accountability.”
Feldman said the bill could run counter to “protecting the concept of a non-prejudiced criminal justice system” if videos from police cameras are released before any trials related to critical incidents.
In a December 2017 statement, the California Peace Officers Association said it supports the use of body cameras as an accountability tool but said it was concerned about “the viewers’ assumption that the video is all-inclusive.”
The group said it also fears the release of body camera videos could negatively impact ongoing investigations into police incidents and create environments in which “public opinion is hastily formed prior” to an investigation commencing.
In a 5-2 vote Tuesday, the Assembly Public Safety Committee approved SB 1421, which would improve public access to information about officers guilty of wrongdoing and those involved in police shootings.
The bill, introduced by Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, is touted as a transparency measure that would pry open the details about officer misconduct in cases involving shootings of suspects, falsified evidence or sexual assault.
California has some of the strictest laws protecting law enforcement personnel records and prohibits police departments from sharing disciplinary records of officers who are guilty of or have been accused of serious misconduct.
The American Civil Liberties Union sponsored the bill, calling it a “long overdue” update to California’s outdated police transparency laws. The group noted 27 other states already make some form of officer records available to the public.
The bill has been amended to allow law enforcement to delay the release of records when there is still an active investigation, a court proceeding or if there is a clear danger to an officer.
The names of officers cleared of misconduct would still be protected under SB 1421.
The California State Sheriffs’ Association, California Association of Highway Patrolmen and the Association of Deputy District Attorneys oppose the bill, according to the bill’s legislative analysis.
Both measures will head to the Senate Appropriations committee. They must pass that committee and be approved by the Assembly before heading to Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk.