Opinion writer

In March, we learned about the promising results of a police body camera study in San Diego. From the Los Angeles Times:

The use of body cameras by San Diego police has led to fewer complaints by residents and less use of force by officers, according to a city report released Wednesday.

Complaints have fallen 40.5% and use of “personal body” force by officers has been reduced by 46.5% and use of pepper spray by 30.5%, according to the report developed by the Police Department for the City Council’s Public Safety and Livable Neighborhoods Committee.

By year’s end, the department plans to have nearly 1,000 officers equipped with the small cameras, including patrol officers, gang-unit officers and motorcycle officers. Currently, 600 officers have the cameras.

The department began testing the use of body cameras in January 2014, two months before city leaders called for an audit of the department’s managerial practices by the U.S. Department of Justice.

But as I wrote last year, outfitting every police officer in the country with a body camera won’t change much if those cameras don’t come with policies that emphasize transparency. Cops who don’t turn their cameras on when they’re supposed to need to be punished. Video needs to be made available to the public, albeit with certain provisions to protect privacy. Video will certainly exonerate some officers accused of misconduct. But it will also inevitably show some officers to have lied, abused their authority and broken the law. Building trust requires transparency under either scenario. The problem in San Diego is that Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman wants the appearance of transparency that comes with body cameras, but she still wants her hand at the switch that controls the flow of information. From the Voice of San Diego:

“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.

This basically boils down to a policy of “just trust us.” But public mistrust of the police — some earned, some not — is one of the primary reasons police reformers advocate the use of body cameras. Citizen-shot video has now shown police to have lied or misstated the facts in countless incidents, including a number of fatal shootings. It has tipped the scales, at least a little, away from blind deference to the police narrative. There has now been a questionable police shooting in San Diego. A witness has contradicted the officer’s account of the shooting. This would seem to be the ideal time to release the body camera footage. But the San Diego Police Department won’t budge.

Here are the details, from the San Diego Union-Tribune:

Fridoon Rawshan Nehad, an Afghanistan native with a criminal history and mental health problems, was shot to death on April 30 by Officer Neal Browder in an alley near an adult book store in the Midway District. Browder was responding to a late-night report that a man in the area had been threatening people with a knife. Browder reported that when he fired his weapon, Nehad was advancing on him with what the officer thought was a knife in his hand but what turned out to be a pen. Violating his department’s policy, the 27-year police veteran did not have his body camera on.

So there’s the first problem. If cameras are going to be used, there needs to be a sufficient punishment to deter officers from not using them, especially in the very sorts of situations for which cameras are important. But it gets worse.

But Wesley Doyle, who then worked for KECO, a nearby business that had a surveillance camera that videotaped the shooting, tells a different story. Doyle says he watched the video of the incident 20 to 30 times and it doesn’t show Nehad behaving in a threatening manner at all, only Browder hastily shooting the man.

Yet the city, in its response to a wrongful-death lawsuit filed by Nehad’s family, stands by the account of Browder, who returned to patrol duty June 1. The department will not provide the video to the media, saying it has no legal obligation to do so.

But the department doesn’t have any legal requirement to keep the evidence under wraps. Police elsewhere routinely release relevant video footage. Between this fact, Doyle’s account of what the video shows and Doyle’s assertion that he was subjected to an aggressive, intimidating interview by two homicide detectives, the San Diego Police Department is inviting the belief that it is executing a cover-up. The video should be released as soon as possible – whatever the embarrassment or fallout – because not releasing it is also generating embarrassment and fallout.

So Zimmerman believes not only that she has the right to keep body camera footage from the public, but also that she has the right to seize video taken by a camera owned by a private citizen and prevent the public from seeing that footage as well.

That the Nehad family was able to obtain the video for its lawsuit at least means that the footage will be a factor in its case. But this is about more than a just outcome for Officer Browder and Nehad’s relatives. Browder is now back on the street. If he too hastily shot and killed a man wielding only a pen and then lied about the incident, the people of San Diego deserve to know. If the San Diego Police Department is too quick to exonerate cops who shoot people, San Diegans deserve to know that, too.

Perhaps Doyle and the Nehad family attorney are wrong about the video, and it will show a justified shooting. Perhaps the video will be inconclusive. But preventing the public from drawing its own conclusions undermines trust in the police, the courts and the city’s leadership. Democracy requires information. We can’t make informed decisions about how we’re governed if the people governing us don’t give us information. Since public officials are usually pretty forthcoming with flattering information, the public will naturally believe that any information they’re withholding must reflect poorly on them. Maybe that isn’t fair. But the best way to prevent this is to make the information available.

It’s also a good lesson in public choice. Body cameras aren’t a panacea. They’re merely a tool. Unless elected officials impose the appropriate policies, any police culture determined to be opaque will figure out how to remain opaque, no matter what new technology is thrown its way. In a room with no light, even a thousand cameras can only record the dark.