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San Diego district attorney reverses course and releases video of officer-involved shootings

San Diego Dist. Atty. Bonnie Dumanis, shown campaigning for mayor of San Diego in April 2012, has said she will release video, if it exists, from every officer-involved shooting unless the officer is to be charged with a crime.

San Diego Dist. Atty. Bonnie Dumanis, shown campaigning for mayor of San Diego in April 2012, has said she will release video, if it exists, from every officer-involved shooting unless the officer is to be charged with a crime.

(Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times)

Dist. Atty. Bonnie Dumanis has released video of three San Diego police officer-involved shootings, a reversal of her previous declarations that all such footage would be treated as evidence to be seen only in court.

“The position represents a major departure from historical practices, but we recognize the times have changed,” Dumanis said in a news briefing Friday at her offices. “This is really new territory.”

She said the legal rights of all the parties involved must be protected and balanced against the public’s desire to view such video.

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“However, we know we live in a world where all kinds of video evidence is becoming more and more prevalent, as everybody uses their iPhones and Androids and tablets, and they can go viral in minutes,” Dumanis said.

In the three review letters released Friday, all officers were found justified in shooting men they knew or believed were armed. One controversial fatal encounter in the Gaslamp District last fall involved two officers who fired repeatedly at a man who twice raised a gun in their direction, including after he was wounded. His gun turned out to be a fake.

Dumanis said she will release video, if it exists, from every officer-involved shooting unless the officer is to be charged with a crime. Then, she said, the video will be withheld until it is produced in a courtroom.

Such prosecutions have been rare — six in the hundreds of shootings in the county since 1980. Prosecutors apply a legal standard that a shooting is legally justified if a reasonable officer in similar circumstances would have fired in self-defense or the defense of others. In most local cases, the officer was shot at, attacked with a lethal weapon, or believed the suspect was armed with a lethal weapon.

Dumanis said she came to her policy change in handling shooting videos after hearing from local law enforcement, citizen advisory groups and the media. Town-hall-style meetings will be held to gather more input from residents, now that the first test cases have been released. Then, Dumanis said, her office will work to draft a written policy on releasing videos that takes the public perspective into account.

The public will be invited to discuss the release of officer-involved shooting videos at two upcoming meetings in San Diego: 6 p.m. May 11 at 6 p.m., Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation, 404 Euclid Ave.; and 6:30 p.m. May 17, Cherokee Point Elementary School, 3735 38th St.

Leaders of all the local law enforcement agencies in the county, including San Diego Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman, agree that pertinent video of officer-involved shootings should be released whenever possible, Dumanis said.

As more officers were outfitted with body-worn cameras over the years, Zimmerman has said repeatedly that she would not release their footage to the media or the public. She expressed concerns that such videos would be viewed out of context, that the sheer volume of footage recorded each day would be too cumbersome to prepare for release, and that privacy rights could be violated.

On Friday, Zimmerman released a statement saying she supports the new protocol and that “having our public’s trust is essential to maintaining the safety of all of our communities.”

Members of the American Civil Liberties Union office in San Diego met with the district attorney during the video policy talks. Christie Hill, senior policy strategist for the San Diego ACLU, said the group supports the direction Dumanis is taking.

“It’s important that the information is released and it’s available to the public,” Hill said. “The public wants this information.... There is a call to more transparency.”

pauline.repard@sduniontribune.com

Repard writes for the San Diego Union Tribune.


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