Humboldt County may become just the second county in the nation to adopt a uniform policy governing the release of police officer-involved shooting videos, a move officials hope will increase transparency and trust between law enforcement and the local community.
But just as Humboldt is beginning work on a draft policy, the one it's modeled after is coming under fire in San Diego County.
Humboldt County District Attorney Maggie Fleming recently met with the Law Enforcement Chiefs Association of Humboldt to discuss San Diego's new policy, which generally dictates that police will release video footage from officer-involved shootings after prosecutors have determined whether or not to criminally charge those involved. Local support for the San Diego model seems to be universal, and Fleming said her office is currently working on a draft that closely mirrors it.
"Over the next few months the law enforcement chiefs (association) will be scheduling public meetings in this county to allow people to raise any concerns they might have," Fleming wrote in an email to the Journal. "I hope that these meetings can include the presentation of a concise draft policy similar to the one used in San Diego."
The San Diego policy is widely viewed as a groundbreaking step, especially in California, where public record laws give law enforcement agencies wide discretion in what they release to the public and what they keep confidential. But across the nation, while police patrol car and body-worn cameras have been widely deployed, use of the technology seems to have outpaced the implementation of policies governing what to do with the footage.
As protests have erupted from coast to coast in recent years after officer-involved shootings, often driven by cell phone footage captured by passersby, conversation — and disagreement — about what to do with official footage has kicked into high gear. On one end of the spectrum sits transparency and the departments' need to gain or restore public trust; on the other sit fears of public backlash and increased liabilities.
It should also be noted that this technology is only partially deployed in Humboldt County. The Eureka Police Department has outfitted all of its patrol cars with dash cams and its officers with body-worn cameras, as have departments in Ferndale and Rio Dell. But the Humboldt County Sheriff's Office still doesn't have either technology, with Undersheriff William Honsal saying the department is ultimately working toward getting cameras on all deputies and correctional officers, but the program would cost $80,000 to start and $40,000 a year after that in storage costs. Arcata has cameras in its patrol cars but getting officers body-worn technology is probably a year or so away, Chief Tom Chapman said.
But it's clear all agencies in Humboldt County — and probably the nation — are moving toward this technology, so local officials agreed the time is right to set a universal policy in place.
At its heart, the San Diego model is a compromise. Instituted by District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis, who herself had chosen not to release videos in a number of high profile officer-involved shootings before reversing course, the policy makes the release of such videos the standard, but only after prosecutors have decided whether to bring criminal charges. (In cases where criminal charges are brought, the video would be held as evidence and only made public at trial.) The idea behind holding the videos until the DA's review of a shooting is complete is to make sure that the integrity of the investigation isn't compromised and the fair trial rights of those involved are preserved.
But this provision inherently means there will be a sizeable passing of time between a critical incident and the release of the video, as district attorney's office reviews of officer-involved shootings generally take months. Consider that the Nov. 1, 2015 shooting of Killian O'Quinn by a California Highway Patrol officer in Eureka remains under review by Fleming's office more than nine months after a seemingly routine traffic stop ended in a fatal shootout.
Eureka Police Chief Andrew Mills seemed to recognize this lengthy review period could cause some problems with a controversial incident. He pointed out that the San Diego policy leaves chiefs some leeway to act in the best interests of their departments and cities, which he'd like to see carried over to whatever policy goes into place in Humboldt County. For example, Mills said if a shooting draws a fierce public backlash and people are "getting ready to riot," Mills would like the flexibility to release video of the incident early, if he thinks it would quell unrest and benefit public safety.
But overall, local officials seem content with much of what San Diego has in place. Honsal said policy looks "great," and fairly balances the public's very real desire to see and evaluate these videos with due process concerns. The public won't be able to instantly see the videos, Honsal said, but will have to "trust the system that's in place," knowing it will have the additional check and balance of viewing the video at a later date. Chapman said he supports the policy and likes the concept, adding that he thinks it's crucial for all local agencies to work together to form a policy they can all follow.
"I feel like we can't wait for the issue to be resolved legislatively," Chapman said. "I just don't see that happening. The technology, the climate is moving much faster than the Legislature is and I think we need to be responsive to that."
But San Diego's policy — officially released in its final form earlier this month — is starting to draw some fire. Both the San Diego Union Tribune and San Diego City Beat ran stories this month critical of various components of the policy, including the lengthy delay between an incident and the release of video footage and provisions allowing departments to alter the videos by blurring the faces of officers, witnesses and "the person shot." Another provision that has drawn criticism from the American Civil Liberties Union and the San Diego defense bar allows that rather than simply releasing these videos to the public, the DA will release them along with a public statement "to provide appropriate and important context."
"The idea that the DA's office would be releasing the video and advocating a position for or against law enforcement, for or against the victim, is inappropriate," Michael Marrinan, a San Diego attorney specializing in police misconduct, told City Beat. "The public should make its decision itself."
Police officials, meanwhile, have countered that it's important for the public not to see these videos in a vacuum and to instead have relevant context. "A video is one part of an event — it doesn't capture everything," said Chapman, noting that professional sports have replays from numerous high definition cameras operated by professionals which still often yield inconclusive results. "The video is one piece of an investigation. There's context and circumstances and emotion — all sorts of different things that the video does not capture."
Some have also been critical that the policy only covers shootings and not all use of force incidents.
Locally, officials concede the issue is complicated and all said they are working to balance transparency with a host of other concerns. While all said they see the balance of interests tipping toward transparency, most said they feel conflicted about making critical incident footage open to public viewing. Mills said it's important to make sure agencies aren't unwittingly "glorifying violence" and catering to "a certain number of people out there who just want to watch gore."
Chapman expounded upon that idea. Officer-involved shootings take an incredible toll, he said. There's a family that has lost a loved one; an officer who has to deal with having killed someone and all the what-ifs that accompany that; and witnesses traumatized by seeing violence first hand. "It is the darkest hour," Chapman said. "There's no worse than that. It's rock bottom."
The prospect of the folks involved in these incidents and their loved ones being subjected to them repeatedly as they are flashed on local news, social media and YouTube is hard to digest, Chapman said.
"Should we see someone being shot?" he asked. "Should you be able to watch that? Because this is real. This is not fiction. It's real-life stuff. Should you, the public, have the right to watch someone die? I'm really stuck right there."
Looking at balancing those concerns with the benefits of transparency, Chapman was then asked if he'd support Humboldt County adopting a policy similar to San Diego's.
"I will support it because I think it's the right thing to do but that doesn't take away from the very real impacts these videos will have on the individuals involved in these incidents who will have to relive them as they're memorialized on Facebook and YouTube," he said.