SAN DIEGO (CN) — All San Diego County cities will adopt a default policy of releasing videos of officer-involved shootings if the public seeks them, the San Diego police chief told a packed community meeting Tuesday.
San Diego Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman joined other law enforcement officials to seek community opinions at Cherokee Point Elementary school in the City Heights neighborhood, before implementing the regional policy.
Zimmerman said the new policy will apply to all cities in San Diego County. If a criminal case related to an officer-involved shooting is filed, the video will be publicly released once it has been entered into evidence, Zimmerman said, but faces of officers, witnesses, suspects and victims will be blurred to protect their privacy.
She said investigations of office-involved shooting and release of videos, if available, will be expedited.
“If it takes a long time to get reviews done, it can inhibit public trust. It can drag on for months and months,” Zimmerman said.
Zimmerman’s position, backed up by District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis, is a sharp turn in a new direction, after repeated calls from media and the public to release footage from department-issued body cameras that San Diego police officers have worn for nearly two years. The policy also applies to footage from surveillance cameras, cellphones and other devices.
San Diego police last year faced public pressure to release surveillance footage taken from a Point Loma business of Officer Neal Browder shooting the mentally ill Fridoon Nehad to death in April.
A handful of San Diego media outlets took Dumanis to court in December — and won — getting a protective order on the video lifted so Nehad’s family could show it to them.
But Dumanis was criticized again when days before the family could go public with the video, she hosted a news conference and showed edited and enhanced portions of the tape. Some called it “a trial in the press.”
At that news conference, just before Christmas, Dumanis said law enforcement officials would create a task force to create a policy on officer-involved shooting videos. The task force met with members of the press and other public stakeholders to do so.
Officer-involved shootings hit close to home for many at the Tuesday meeting. Several dozen community members lost their friend and family member Thongsoune Vilaysane on May 11, when officers shot him during a pursuit, believing he was in a stolen car. Police named the officers involved over the weekend. They had two to five years experience on the city police force.
Vaitip Chanthaoudom read a statement during public comment at the end of the meeting, telling Zimmerman that police misconduct “became a nightmare when our friend was gunned down basically in our backyard.”
“Was it truly necessary to use his car for target practice?” Chanthaoudom asked.
Chanthaoudom told Courthouse News he had repeated run-ins with police while growing up in Southeast San Diego, that he and his friends were often “harassed,” pulled over and questioned about gangs.
Chanthaoudom suggested that San Diego police should upload officer-involved shooting videos to a third party site such as the American Civil Liberties Union mobile app, Mobile Justice, which sends the footage to a local ACLU chapter.
“They seem to shoot first, ask questions later,” Chanthaoudom said. “Releasing the videos will show they have nothing to hide and let the public take a look at it and judge for themselves.”
Many residents questioned Zimmerman about officers’ protocol for turning on their body cams. Zimmerman has said officers may not have the “muscle memory” to remember to turn on the cameras before making an “enforcement contact,” which is department policy.
Zimmerman said police academy trainees are receiving faux body cameras to “get in the habit” of turning them on.
The police practice of allowing officers involved in shootings to review footage of the shooting before filing an official report hit a sour note with many residents, one of whom called it “cherry picking and tailoring the narrative.”
Browder was allowed to view surveillance footage and footage from another officer’s body cam last year before being interviewed for an internal investigation, five days after the shooting.
Immediately after the shooting, Browder told investigators he saw no weapon on Nehad, but after watching the surveillance footage days later, he told investigators he saw what looked like “a metal object” in his hand. The object turned out to be a metallic pen.
Zimmerman called her department and others in the county law-enforcement leaders, for their “groundbreaking” decision to outfit officers with body cameras and develop a regional policy on releasing the video footage.
She said San Diego is the only county in the country in which the FBI reviews camera footage in civil rights investigations. She did not say how long that practice has been in effect.
San Diego police and other law enforcement agencies are expected to release their officer-involved shooting video policy sometime this year.
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