Public Safety & Homeland Security

Sacramento Police are Frustrated by Footage of Confrontations. Will More Video Help?

A Sacramento city policy approved last year requires that footage of “critical incidents” with police be released to the public within 30 days.

by Anita Chabria, The Sacramento Bee / May 18, 2017

(TNS) - Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg said this week that police should release “as much video as possible” to increase trust, transparency and officer morale in a department with fractured relations in some neighborhoods.

Steinberg and Tim Davis, head of the Sacramento police officers union, said members of the force are frustrated that a new city policy requiring release of video in extreme confrontations unfairly portrays their department. In the most recent example, an officer was captured on tape last month tackling a pedestrian to the ground and repeatedly punching him in Del Paso Heights.

A Sacramento city policy approved last year requires that footage of “critical incidents” with police be released to the public within 30 days, unless the City Council grants a waiver. The council responded to community demands for more transparency following controversial police shootings in the city and elsewhere in the nation.

Steinberg called on the city to release video showing “everyday interactions, incidents that occur where the police officer acted in the right,” which he said would boost department morale. He also, however, supports releasing video from lesser confrontations that don’t meet the “critical” threshold under current law.

“The police have ... rightly complained that with our current video release policy, the only thing the public sees is the controversial shooting. Well, there is a lot more to see,” Steinberg said at Tuesday’s City Council meeting. “Transparency is transparency and we have the technology now to be able to actually do more than we are doing in a way that I think could bridge some of the trust gap that we hear so much about.”

Police spokesman Matt McPhail said the department currently has the discretion to release video in non-critical incidents but does not regularly do so in part because it lacks the manpower to edit the footage – the department currently blurs faces and identifying details such as license plate numbers. Also, he said, the department has not determined that releasing more video is the best course.

“I know it seems really simple to say you have it why don’t you just do it, but there are a lot more calculations,” said McPhail. “The question is by putting that video out, what is the value and what is the potential negative?”

Police in recent weeks have expanded collection of video, deploying body cameras on field officers. Currently, the department has about 100 body-worn units up and running, McPhail said.

He said many officers assigned to the south area of the city and the downtown have received and are using body cameras, and the department remains on schedule to have all sworn officers using them by fall. Officers who don’t have cars with dash cameras, such as horse, motorcycle and bike officers, received the body cameras first, he said.

Police union head Davis has met privately with Steinberg and said after Tuesday’s City Council meeting that he supports expanding video release as a practice. Davis said the current policy leads to a biased view of the department.

“If the city through this policy is going to select the most tragic incidents and release that video, then they need to find the most triumphant and release it,” said Davis. “It’s not fair to just tell one side of the story.”

Steinberg pointed to the Seattle Police Department as a model for greater video release. Seattle police spokesman Jonah Spangenthal-Lee said his department releases video in critical incidents ,such as shootings, within 72 hours but often as quickly as 24 hours. The department also puts out video and other materials when “we think there is public interest or public value,” said Spangenthal-Lee.

He said the video release was not mandated by policy, although the city is currently working on a policy. The releases help “show people all the work that goes into public safety and tell that story,” he said.

Both Steinberg and Davis said any change in video releases would need to consider the privacy of residents and police.

McPhail said the current policy is “not typically showcasing the big picture of what policing is,” but added that many officers had privacy concerns and might not want the notoriety that increased video access could bring, even when it highlighted positive actions.

Anita Chabria: 916-321-1049, @chabriaa


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