As more police agencies put video recorders in their patrol cars and issue body cameras to their officers, policymakers must grapple with how and when to release the recordings to the public. These can be difficult questions, but the legal fight over the recordings of a shooting of two unarmed men in Gardena in 2013 should be an easy call.
The investigation is over. The Los Angeles County district attorney pronounced the shooting justified. The city settled with the families of the victims for $4.7 million. The case is closed. Yet the Gardena Police Department, citing privacy concerns, is still refusing the request of the Los Angeles Times and other news outlets that it turn over the video from the dashboard cameras that recorded officers killing Ricardo Diaz-Zeferino and wounding Eutiquio Acevedo early one June morning.
What makes the demurral all the more pointless is that a description of the video is available to the public already as part of a district attorney's report that can be found online. The video is a compilation of recordings from three different dashboard cameras, which show the police officers' encounter with Diaz-Zeferino, a robbery suspect, and two other men on a sidewalk in front of a Carrows restaurant on Redondo Beach Boulevard.
The attorney for the victims' families says the video shows that Diaz-Zeferino wasn't doing anything wrong. Maybe, but the autopsy report found he had a blood alcohol count of .22% and methamphetamine in his system. It would have been tough for Diaz-Zeferino to stand still at that point. Indeed, the video transcript describes him as moving his arms in odd ways that would alarm officers.
The real significance of the video is as a test case. That's why law enforcement associations have sided in court with the Gardena Police Department. If many police officials had their way, no video would be released — ever. That would be unfortunate. The whole point of outfitting cops with cameras is to increase transparency and to provide an objective record of interactions between police and the public.
California needs statewide rules to govern the release of such videos that balances transparency with privacy. An attempt to regulate recordings from police body cameras, and to make sure they are subject to public record rules, was put aside this year. That can't be the end of it. The Legislature must return to the issue, and soon.
We understand the concern of the Gardena police. This was a messy case based on a tragic misunderstanding that ended in the worst way. It stemmed from a report of a non-violent bicycle theft mistakenly relayed to officers as a more serious robbery. The stolen bike, in fact, belonged to Diaz-Zeferino's brother. He and two friends were out looking for the bike when stopped by police.
But it's over and settled, and time to release the video.