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San Diego Police Department says, ‘Just trust us.’

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I noted in August the bizarre position staked out by the San Diego Police Department with respect to the use of body cameras: A department spokesman told local media outlets that the videos taken by the cameras aren’t public record, which means the department is under no obligation to release them. According to Lisa Halverstadt at Voice of San Diego, Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman isn’t backing down.

“The video footages are considered evidence,” Zimmerman said during a panel discussion organized by the San Diego chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. “And at this point, in the policy, I don’t plan to release any of the video with it because it is considered evidence.”
Legal experts have said SDPD could legally keep the video footage private indefinitely, even after an investigation wraps.
The department’s policy was revealed when Voice of San Diego requested footage from two police shootings this spring. The department didn’t release the videos, citing ongoing investigations . . .
Zimmerman said there is a potential exception to the general rule against releasing the footage, though it’s totally up to her whether it comes into play.
The department might release the footage if it faced a crisis like the one police are experiencing in Ferguson, Mo., where massive protests erupted after an unarmed black teen was shot and killed by an officer.
“(In Ferguson, Mo.), they’re seeing the property damage, assaults that are going on there, and so I think the public wants information on exactly what happened, so if you take a situation like that and that body-worn camera can tell exactly what happened then that would be something that would be very positive because right now in that situation, no one really knows what happened,” Zimmerman said.
But again, the latest version of the Police Department’s policy leaves that decision up to Zimmerman or the next chief.

As Halverstadt points out, this basically boils down to a policy of just trust us. The San Diego Police Department will determine when the public needs to see police camera footage. No one else gets a say. Sure, the department could only release video that exonerates officers, while keeping incriminating video secret. But they won’t do that. We know this because they say they won’t.

This would be a noxious policy anywhere. But it’s particularly troubling here, given that the camera program was implemented as a way to earn back public trust after a series of sexual harassment, racial profiling, and police abuse scandals.