The Davis Police Department is declining to release body camera video from the night officer Natalie Corona was shot and killed, saying it doesn’t have to provide the footage under a new California law that requires law enforcement agencies to do so following “critical” shooting incidents.
Experts say the department is on sound legal footing, despite new police transparency laws passed last year.
A new body camera law doesn’t go into effect until July 1, and even if it could be applied now, the Davis department would have legal standing to withhold video footage from the night the rookie police officer was shot while responding to a traffic accident.
Assembly Bill 748, which former Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law last year, only applies to critical incidents in which officers shoot or use force — not when officers themselves are shot.
Davis police say Kevin Limbaugh ambushed Corona as she investigated a three-car wreck on Jan. 10. Detectives said Limbaugh fired at several passersby before heading inside a home, where he fatally shot himself after a standoff that lasted several hours. Police never fired their weapons.
“No use of force or discharge of a firearm was used against Kevin Limbaugh,” Jean Lyon, records and communications manager for the Davis Police Department, wrote in response to a Sacramento Bee request for dash cam and body camera footage under the California Public Records Act. “As such, the department does not intend to disclose the investigation videos.”
Open records advocates say the department’s choice to withhold the footage illustrates that, despite recent changes to state law in the wake of several controversial police shootings, California law enforcement officials still have broad authority to keep many investigative records concealed. They can do so with impunity even in long-closed cases, when only suspects have died or were sentenced to prison, or when misconduct by police is alleged.
Like many police agencies across the state, Davis usually chooses not to release its investigative files when members of the public request them through the California Public Records Act, said Lt. Paul Doroshov.
“For the most part, as a general rule, we don’t,” he said.
Police advocates say withholding investigatory records is important to protect investigative methods and to shield informants and victims. California also is hardly the only other state to give police such discretion. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press identifies at least 20 other states that allow police to withhold investigative records indefinitely.
Jim Ewert, an attorney with the California Newspaper Publishers Association, said open-records advocates have spent years discussing the need to change California’s law to compel police agencies to release files when there’s no risk that doing so would harm an ongoing investigation.
He notes that there’s nothing in current law that says agencies have to permanently hide investigative records, but many choose to do so anyway.
“Once those circumstances (of an open investigation) no longer exist, the policy should be that it’s disclosable,” Ewert said. “But it’s not, for political purposes or other reasons.”
Ewert isn’t optimistic the law will change soon. He said it was difficult last year to pass AB 748 and its companion legislation Senate Bill 1421, which allowed certain officer discipline files to be open for public review. Police unions and law enforcement associations fiercely fought both bills.
The Sacramento Bee and the Los Angeles Times jointly sued the Sacramento Sheriff’s Department on Friday, alleging that the agency is refusing to follow the statute that requires the release of records on deputies who fired their weapons or engaged in misconduct on duty.
The lawsuit, filed in Sacramento Superior Court, states that both newspapers filed public records act requests in early January seeking release of such documents under SB 1421.
Sheriff Scott Jones’ department quickly rejected both requests, saying it had such records but would not release them until it had “clear legal authority to release such records.”