Rules for body cameras are left to local police departments as lawmakers struggle to pass statewide regulations

Over the past two years, police departments up and down California have outfitted their patrol officers with body-worn cameras in an effort to boost community trust in law enforcement. At the same time, state lawmakers have tried and failed to pass a half-dozen major bills to address a range of issues including when officers turn the cameras on and off and when the public might see the video.

The Legislature’s inability to agree to body-camera rules reflects deep divisions within the state’s ruling Democratic caucus on how to tackle the privacy and transparency issues raised by the new technology. 

“On this issue, I want to bang my head against the wall sometimes,” said Assemblyman Jim Cooper (D-Elk Grove), the author of one of the failed bills.

Without state action, local police departments have developed polices of their own, perhaps leading to declining interest among lawmakers to take on an issue that has been difficult to resolve. No police body-camera legislation has been announced yet this year, and organizations representing police officers said they’re pleased with many of the local rules.

In the past, lawmakers who have introduced body-camera legislation said they were motivated to promote more law enforcement transparency and accountability through more expansive body-camera polices after the 2014 police shootings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Laquan McDonald in Chicago. Cooper, a former captain in the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department, and other legislators with ties to law enforcement have acted in an attempt to ensure greater police control over how the footage is handled.

Assemblyman Evan Low (D-Campbell), whose brother is a Bay Area police officer, introduced unsuccessful legislation in 2016 that would have allowed the families of officers killed on duty to decide if any video or audio footage of the incident is released. He said the dividing lines within the Legislature are clear.

“There are those that have a fundamental distrust of law enforcement given some of their experiences,” Low said. “Perhaps the region that they live in. Perhaps the communities that they come from. And then those of us who are in the position that we support law enforcement from the vantage point of it being very personal.”

These divergent points of view have led to heated debates.

Two years ago, then-Assemblyman Mike Gatto (D-Glendale) ordered Capitol sergeants to lock the doors in a committee room so lawmakers couldn’t leave during intense discussion on a body-camera bill written by Assemblywoman Shirley Weber (D-San Diego). Weber’s bill would have required officers to provide an initial written report following an officer-involved shooting or other serious uses of force before viewing camera video. Major police unions vehemently opposed the provision, leading to the bill’s demise.

Last year, Democratic lawmakers proposed four major body-camera bills with conflicting aims to increase public access to the footage or further restrict it. None of them reached the governor’s desk after law enforcement and civil liberties groups mobilized to defeat the legislation they were against.

The state stalemate has allowed local police departments to fill the vacuum. In general, law enforcement agencies limit the release of body-camera video, arguing that the videos are criminal evidence exempt from the state’s public records laws. In some high-profile cases, such as the shooting of an unarmed teenager in Fresno and an unarmed black man in El Cajon last year, authorities have released video in response to public outcry. The San Diego District Attorney’s Office also makes videos of police shootings public when explaining why they haven’t filed charges against the officers involved.

Beyond the public release of body-camera video, local departments have developed policies on how officers should handle the equipment. The Los Angeles Police Department is rolling out 7,000 cameras to its officers, and its policy — along with those in Oakland, San Diego, San Francisco, San Jose and many other agencies across the state — came about through negotiations with its police union.

The proliferation of collectively bargained local body-camera rules has made it less important for state lawmakers to act, said Michael Durant, president of the 69,000-member Peace Officers Research Assn. of California, which represents the most rank-and-file officers in the state. The association was the key backer of three of the failed body-camera bills last year, but has no plans to sponsor legislation in 2017, Durant said.

Most of the local body-camera policies align with the association’s preferences as to when officers are allowed to review videos and when the cameras should be activated, Durant said. The association would likely oppose any state legislation that would attempt to override existing body-camera policies negotiated between local police departments and their respective unions.

“We should not be trying to go into a local city and county and disturb [a contract] that’s put in place through collective bargaining,” Durant said.

But Peter Bibring, director of police practices for the American Civil Liberties Union of California, said the Legislature should continue to push for statewide policies that increase public access and boost officer accountability, regardless of whether local departments have already crafted rules.

“There’s no question that when a policy is decided by police management and police unions in a room, public transparency and officer accountability are not always best served,” Bibring said.

All four legislators who wrote bills in 2016 — Cooper, Low, Assemblyman Bill Quirk (D-Hayward) and Assemblyman Miguel Santiago (D-Los Angeles) — said they’re still deciding whether to try again this year. But no one in the group believed their colleagues have moved any closer to an agreement on what statewide body-camera rules should look like.

“We're sort of baffled,” Low said.

liam.dillon@latimes.com

@dillonliam

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