San Jose lawmakers move domestic violence records request behind closed doors
A San Jose police cruiser. File photo.

    Advocates are upset that San Jose lawmakers have spent months denying body camera footage to a survivor of domestic violence, forcing her to argue her case in a public forum.

    The city’s Rules and Open Government Committee agreed Wednesday to address a California Public Records Act request filed by a survivor of domestic violence in closed session. The requester wants the city to turn over body camera footage as part of a complaint she filed with the San Jose Police Department concerning an officer who allegedly failed to report a violation of a domestic violence restraining order she has against her husband. San José Spotlight is not naming the requester due to concerns for her safety.

    “We believe that our client is entitled to the footage of that video,” said Esther Peralez-Dieckmann, executive director of Next Door Solutions to Domestic Violence. “I don’t understand what the hesitation is with releasing the video to her.”

    The requester’s ordeal started in July 2020 after she contacted the police when her husband allegedly purchased a large number of guns in violation of a domestic violence restraining order. It’s unclear how she learned of the purchase, but she told city officials the firearms were discussed in court. She claims the officer who responded to her call failed to report the violation and she filed a complaint with internal affairs at SJPD.

    Advocates say SJPD determined the officer violated department policy by not taking a police report for the restraining order violation, but not for violating “courtesy” standards. The requester later made a Public Records Act request for body camera footage to substantiate her complaint that the officer was discourteous to her when she reported the restraining order violation. SJPD spokesperson Christian Camarillo told San José Spotlight the department does not provide information or comment on administrative investigations.

    Last July, San Jose denied the request, citing a section of the California Public Records Act that generally exempts most law enforcement investigative records from public disclosure. The city claimed in a memo the incident cited by the requester does not meet the definition of a crime, and therefore she is not entitled to the footage. The requester appealed the denial in October.

    Legal concerns

    On Wednesday, the rules committee approved a staff recommendation to move the appeal into a future closed session given the potential for litigation between the city and the requester.

    “This is an issue I’ve always felt belonged at least at first in closed session and not in open session because of the potential exposure of the survivor of this incident,” Councilmember David Cohen said. “I don’t think it’s been fair necessarily to have a lot of this aired publicly.”

    City Attorney Nora Frimann said she had legal concerns about the appeal, and that it will be easier for councilmembers to discuss it in closed session.

    “This doesn’t mean there won’t be a further hearing before this committee on this issue, but it’s a way to provide information and background to the council in a way that is hopefully less invasive than this process,” she said.

    Councilmember Sylvia Arenas voiced frustration and apologized for how the appeal process has dragged out in public. She also seemed puzzled SJPD couldn’t show the requester the footage.

    “Since there was a valid restraining order, and a purchase of those guns was made, that could qualify as a crime,” Arenas said. “I’m still not clear about why we couldn’t qualify it as a crime and then allow (the requester) to view the video?”

    Going to closed session would allow the department to share more details about the case that could clear up some confusion, SJPD Deputy Chief Elle Washburn said.

    Amanda Gould, a case manager at Next Door Solutions to Domestic Violence who spoke on behalf of the requester during the meeting, noted city officials previously justified not turning over footage by claiming the requester did not have a restraining order, even though she did.

    Gould told San José Spotlight all restraining orders are supposed to show up in the California Law Enforcement Telecommunications System, used by law enforcement agencies to check people’s criminal histories. She said the system apparently sometimes fails to track temporary restraining orders, which can put domestic violence survivors at risk.

    “It feels like the goalposts just keep moving as an excuse to not give her what is rightfully hers,” Gould said.

    Contact Eli Wolfe at [email protected] or @EliWolfe4 on Twitter. 

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