San Jose takes steps to improve access to police videos
Video clips that are of “extraordinary public interest” will appear on the San Jose Police Department or city website. File photo.

Following a season of protests against police use of force, city leaders unanimously passed a policy Nov. 10 to thrust officer body worn camera footage, helicopter video and security tapes into the public eye.

Videos from the San Jose Police Department will appear on the SJPD or city website at the request of the police chief, city manager or City Council if the clips are of “extraordinary public interest.”

This could include video of controversial uses-of-force or video from major protests where interactions between police and residents are disputed.

Mayor Sam Liccardo said while the policy may not be perfect, the city is better off with it in place.

“I look forward to the immediate benefit of the increased transparency and accountability from this initiative, which I proposed in June, as we work to improve public trust in our police and to build community partnership in their very difficult and important work in protecting our neighborhoods,” Liccardo said.

The policy instructs SJPD and the city to choose three videos that most clearly capture a situation of interest. Released videos should also include at least 10 minutes of film prior to the questionable incident for context.

“There should be 30-plus videos of my encounter on body cameras,” activist J.T. Stukes said. “I’d be all for them being released to the public.”

Stukes, who is suing the San Jose Police Department for use of excessive force during the May 31-June 4 citywide curfew, said he remains skeptical of the policy even if it’s a step in the right direction.

“The city would have to want to release the footage for it to be useful,” he said. “I’m not sure they would want to release embarrassing footage.”

The police chief can mandate video release even if the clips can’t be released under the California Public Records Act. But the city can redact footage if certain parts hinder an ongoing investigation or cause danger or a witness.

Officers shown in a video will be notified before it is released and can express concerns in regards to safety. For this reason, the police chief can control how long it takes for a video to be made public.

If the footage can be requested via the Public Records Act, the city has the authority to schedule a video’s release, which could make for a faster turnaround, depending on the video’s content.

According to City Attorney Nora Frimann, the City Attorney’s Office will have the final say in what edits are made to police footage.

The San Jose Police Officers’ Association wrote a letter in support of releasing videos but said the city had an obligation to protect officers in the process.

“We are pleased that our proposal to the city to improve transparency with regard to releasing videos of police interactions was adopted and we are appreciative of the specific protections to ensure officer safety were included,” said Paul Kelly, president of SJPOA.

The City Council first pushed for SJPD to publicly post videos on June 9, after officer use of force was called into question during protests against police treatment of George Floyd, a Black man, who died in custody.

Instead of releasing the department’s body-worn camera footage, helicopter footage and security footage, SJPD posted video compilations of footage that could already be found online. According to a memo by Chief Eddie Garcia, the video was withheld due to ongoing investigations.

“While choosing to withhold these videos aligned with existing law and past practice, it did not meet the evolving community expectations of openness and transparency,” Garcia wrote.

Three months later, the City Council ordered the release of body-worn camera footage of the incidents, despite the investigation. Councilmembers also directed the police department to create a process for releasing video in the future when police behavior is called into question.

Resident Tessa Woodmansee said her son attended protests after the 2016 election and reported back to her that police were being overly aggressive. Woodmansee said she filed a report, but SJPD found no evidence of violence.

“When we’re looking at these issues, we really need that video footage to be shown to us,” she said. “There should have been police footage that I could have seen and verified that there wasn’t aggression.”

Contact Carly Wipf at [email protected] or follow @CarlyChristineW on Twitter.

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