Why Police Can't Be Trusted to Decide If Video Should Be Public

The killing of an unarmed man in Gardena, California, and the weak rationale for suppressing dashboard-cam footage of the encounter

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As police departments generate video footage from dashboard and body cameras, many officials are fighting to retain discretion about what, if anything, to release to the public. They are correct that some videos are best kept off of the Internet: For example, a rape victim should be able to call 911 and invite police officers into her home to take a report without worrying that the scene will be posted to YouTube.

At the same time, taxpayers are funding technology that records encounters between police officers and the policed in part to discourage and expose official misconduct. It seems self-evident that neither end will be realized if cops, or the municipalities liable for police misbehavior, are permitted to suppress footage at will. And the foolhardiness of giving law enforcement discretion to make these judgments is illustrated by a just-concluded fight over footage of a police shooting in Gardena, California, a tiny municipality that blends into the sprawl of greater Los Angeles.

Two summers ago, a group of Gardena police officers shot at three unarmed innocents, including Diaz Zeferino, a 35-year-old restaurant worker who was killed. “The Gardena shooting occurred the night of June 2, 2013, after police responded to a call about a bicycle stolen from outside a CVS drugstore. A police dispatcher mistakenly told officers the crime was a robbery,” The Los Angeles Times reported. “A sergeant responding to the call saw two men riding bicycles near the store. Mistaking them for the thieves, the sergeant stopped the men, according to a memo written by a prosecutor from the L.A. County district attorney’s office, who reviewed the case. Diaz Zeferino ran up to join the other two men as police detained them. One patrol-car video shows him continuing to walk toward his friends despite an officer shouting at him to stop. On the videos, officers can be heard repeatedly telling Diaz Zeferino to keep his hands up as he moves his arms up and down.”

Video of the incident is hugely damning:

Yet neither Gardena residents nor academics who study policing nor reform advocates nor members of the broader public were able to see the video for more than two years after the incident. The footage was only released this week because the L.A. Times, the Associated Press, and Bloomberg undertook the time and expense of a months-long legal battle to liberate it from city officials with perverse incentives to suppress it.

Temporarily suppressing the footage left the public unable to evaluate Deputy District Attorney Rosa Alarcon’s decision against filing charges against the cops. It left experts outside the Gardena police department unable to review the incident and offer advice on how similar tragedies might best be avoided. It left Gardena voters without key information about the performance of its police force; unable to opine to elected officials on the incident; and unable to evaluate whether the officials responded properly. The community was also deprived of footage needed to decide whether it wanted those police officers to continue being paid to carry guns.

The L.A. Times reports that as recently as May, the three cops who shot at the unarmed men, needlessly killing one, were still out patrolling the streets of Gardena.

Gardena Police Chief Ed Medrano opposes the video’s release even after the fact, telling the L.A. Times, Our police officers are entrusted with sensitive and extremely personal information and we often come in contact with people under tragic situations and at their worst. We worry about the implications of this decision and its impact on victims and average citizens who are recorded by the police.”

But  the “average citizens” who came into contact with police in this case emphatically wanted the video released. Suppressing it is what further hurt the victims.

When an innocent person videotaped by police in the course of police work objects to the release of a video, there may be any number of plausible cases for suppressing it. Such concerns in no way require or justify suppressing videos in which police officers are the only ones who’d rather that no one see the relevant footage.

That bright line, at least, is easy to draw: the privacy interests of the policed should be considered, whereas on-duty police officers acting in their official capacity should have no privacy rights in their contested actions. This is never clearer than when they use lethal force on a public street against unarmed innocents. And the fact that Gardena police tried to permanently suppress footage of just such an incident, succeeding for two years, perfectly illustrates why such decisions should be taken out of the hands of police departments and municipal officials.

Legislators should amend California’s public record laws to strip cops of discretion if no civilian in a video objects to its release. If they demure, voters should use the initiative process. And Gardena residents should reconsider whether they want to be represented by folks who fought hard to stop them from seeing the truth.