I am not a conspiracy theorist. Well, maybe I am a little. I can't help believing in a conspiracy when some government or corporation keeps me from information that I need to assess a situation. And, because secrets are harder to keep these days, information kept hidden seems more significant.
That's what has happened locally in the case of former Eureka Police Sgt. Adam Laird, who may or may not have used excessive force when he assisted in the arrest of a 14-year-old in December of 2012. Laird was later arrested and charged with committing assault (the case was ultimately dismissed). Journal News Editor Thadeus Greenson did an Aug. 6 write up ("Exempt from Disclosure"), in which he laid out his attempt to view video taken from a police car dashboard camera that captured the arrest of the teen.
In June 2014, the right to public records became a part of California's constitution. But the California Public Records Act, which lays out the rules under which the records must be distributed, gives police big-time exemptions. The California public has never had the right to anything that is part of an ongoing police investigation. And police investigations can stay ongoing for years. Departments also regularly refuse to release documents even from closed investigations.
Conspiracy theories start when the government keeps from the public important, needed information but releases other information.
Neither the California Public Records Act nor the California Constitution require secrecy of police files. They only give police the option to withhold records. There are important reasons why police have that option and why some information should be kept secret. If someone came forward confessing to be the Zodiac Killer, it would be helpful for police to know details of the crime that only the true killer would know.
And police often choose to make information public. They request the public's help in finding suspects on the loose when they distribute sketch artist pictures to the news media.
Sometimes, police try to make a public case for an arrest by releasing crime scene photos, interrogation tapes, 911 recordings, and dashboard and body cam video. Sometimes, they release them simply for good PR.
In Eureka, police released a dashboard camera video in January of a police officer in a car chasing a man on a bike and telling him to slow down and stop. As Greenson reported, there are no rules on the release of body camera and dash camera video. Sometimes police release them, sometimes not.
In the case of Sarah Bland, the Texas woman who died in a jail cell after being arrested and held for three days for failing to signal when changing lanes, the police released the video of her traffic stop and arrest. And after people on the Internet suggested her booking photo looked like she was already dead at the time it was taken, police released video of Bland's booking into the jail.
I have mixed feelings about the routine release of mug shots before someone has been convicted of a crime. Mug shots can make almost anyone look guilty. News organizations don't routinely follow the development of all those cases to publish any subsequent dismissal of charges. But mug shot photos can help us determine improper patterns of arrest.
I have no mixed feelings about dashboard camera video. There is no privacy outdoors and a police officer does not pull up inside someone's living room. Dashboard cameras record in public. They go on in the course of daily police business. Police should not retroactively decide that video taken in the normal course of police business suddenly becomes secret because what occurred is now controversial, regardless of whether it becomes part of a police investigation. Videos are not the same as crime scene photos, which are taken only after an investigation is underway.
The California Constitution is clear: "A statute, court rule, or other authority ... shall be broadly construed if it furthers the people's right of access, and narrowly construed if it limits the right of access."
I had a professor in graduate school who said that bad cases make great case law. This little case of a kid who might not have been beaten in a little town at the top of the state might end up changing California law.
When the city of Eureka denied Greenson his request for the video under the California Public Records Act, he did something that was at once bold and naïve — a combination that can sometimes yield surprising results. Getting information from police agencies is difficult because the Public Records Act gives them discretion over what's released and what isn't. Greenson decided to ask for the video from the juvenile courts, since the video was part of the a case against a juvenile suspect. One thing most journalists know is that the juvenile court system is a black hole of privacy rights. There are all kinds of court rules that prevent the release of information from these cases. But Greenson discovered a process by which one could request the information, and filed a petition even though courts routinely deny them in juvenile cases. But here is what makes this Laird case so interesting: No one but the government of Eureka had any interest in keeping the video secret. The teen, through his lawyer, didn't oppose its release. Laird didn't oppose its release. And seeing a lack of opposition from anyone actually involved in the case, Humboldt County Superior Court Judge Christopher Wilson ordered the tape released.
The city of Eureka appealed Wilson's order on July 10 and must file its first brief with the First District Court of Appeals by Sept. 21. This case could make its way to the California Supreme Court. Since there have been 662 people shot to death by police this year across the country, 112 of them in California, according to the Washington Post, that ruling is going to be a hot read.
If it does go to the state Supreme Court, you are going to see amicus briefs from all over the country. California could end up with definitive rules on the release of police dashboard and body camera video. As they say, as goes California, so goes the nation.
A ruling against public disclosure of dashboard and body camera video will make having those cameras a farce. To re-establish the integrity of our police agencies, or to establish that integrity for populations of people long subject to discriminatory treatment by police, we need to see what is happening out there. Otherwise, many of us will simply believe the worst.
Marcy Burstiner is chair of the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at Humboldt State University. On a less weighty note, she can't wait to read Girl Waits With Gun by local author Amy Stewart. The New York Times Book Review said it is so good, Stewart should get busy on a sequel.