Stop the body-cam blackout, for the sake of police

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When will California law enforcement muster the courage to join the age of transparency?

Even as body cameras edge toward inevitability in public safety, police unions keep trying to prevent the public from seeing the footage. It’s a shortsighted attitude, and it benefits no one, particularly not the taxpayers who foot the bill when the misconduct of rogue cops gets municipalities sued in police abuse cases.

Never mind that citizens with cellphones have outed bad shootings and departmental cover-ups across the country, or that body-cam footage often exonerates officers facing spurious allegations. The running battle runs on. For the latest case in point, take Assembly Bill 2533. Please.

Carried by Assemblyman Miguel Santiago, D-Los Angeles, and sponsored by the Police Officers Research Association of California, the bill – which awaits a vote in the Assembly – would erode trust in law enforcement by making it easier for officers to tie up the release of body-cam recordings with months- and years-long court delays.

AB 2533 would require public agencies to give peace officers at least three business days’ notice before releasing body-cam audio or video footage for public scrutiny. That sounds reasonable, until you realize that officers don’t need such an automatic delay. The law already permits them to seek an injunction banning a recording’s release if they have genuine reason to fear for their safety.

Officers and unions have been exploiting that existing law, in fact, in a trend that First Amendment lawyers say is a variation on the so-called SLAPP lawsuits that businesses and government officials have used over the years to intimidate critics. Like those frivolous “strategic lawsuits against public participation,” the body-cam injunctions use thin defamation claims and the threat of protracted litigation to silence or censor free speech – public records in this case.

AB 2533 invites law enforcement to make such appeals virtually automatic. And the state shouldn’t be encouraging such defensiveness among public employees. Keeping body-cam footage under wraps in an era of cellphone cameras and social media postings is futile, and it prevents the public from seeing the officer’s side of the story. Moreover, AB 2533 would erode the modicum of transparency the public does have, since its fine print also lays the legal groundwork for withholding the identities of officers involved in police shootings and misconduct claims.

That’s information the public needs and has a right to. Law enforcement officers do important work, but the sudden widespread availability of civilian video has made it clear that accountability and reforms are overdue.

Body cameras alone can’t be a one-stop shop in rebuilding trust, but they can make, and are already making, a big difference in the handling of brutality claims from South Carolina to Ohio.

This isn’t the only effort by police to regain the narrative after bad press of their own making. Los Angeles’ police chief, for example, is insisting that body-cam footage is exempt from state open-records requirements. And an attempt last year to write a statewide policy balancing accountability, privacy and safety in the treatment of body-cam footage was blocked by law enforcement groups.

State lawmakers need to muster the backbone to say no to law enforcement lobbyists, to stand up for the public and to help police get over their fear of the 21st century. Police do important and dangerous work. But they don’t need carte blanche and an information blackout to keep California’s streets safe.