The silent footage depicts a hectic nighttime street scene through the windshield of a cop car: In just under 20 seconds, a hooded figure seen running across the middle of the road is confronted by two armed officers and then falls stiffly to the ground, gunpowder visibly exploding from his back.
Thirteen months passed between that October 2014 shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald in Chicago and the video’s court-ordered release last November, leading to a first-degree murder charge for one of the officers. Like many observers across the country, California Assemblyman Bill Quirk was disturbed by the delay, which has roiled the city more than the shooting itself and prompted calls for the resignation of Mayor Rahm Emanuel over suspicions of a cover-up.
“If there wasn’t a court-ordered release of that video, I’m not sure that officer would have been indicted,” the Hayward Democrat said. “I just don’t want anything like that to happen in California.”
Quirk is one of several California lawmakers this session who carried bills concerning the release of law enforcement records, with a particular focus on footage from the body cameras that are proliferating across the state. As activists push for more transparency on police use of force and as new technology thrusts these cases into the spotlight more than ever, a national battle over accountability and privacy has reached the Capitol.
Thus far, the Legislature has sided overwhelmingly with law enforcement groups. While bills with their backing to restrict the release of some footage sailed through the legislative process, their lobbying halted two others that would have expanded access to records.
“Rank-and-file cops are in the streets and know what is going to be best, not only for officers, but for the communities that we serve and protect,” said Mike Durant, president of the Peace Officers Research Association of California, which represents about 66,000 law enforcement officers. “So I think the Legislature realized how important it is to get it right. And ultimately, working with public safety is the best way to get it right.”
Their success has frustrated groups like the American Civil Liberties Union of California, which frequently finds itself on the other side of fights over how much police information should be available to the public.
Peter Bibring, director of police practices for the ACLU of California, criticized law enforcement groups for trying to limit the usefulness of body cameras as a new tool for transparency by putting them under the same “veil of secrecy” as other police records. He said departments don’t want to be held accountable for not disciplining officers.
“There is broad public support for this kind of transparency, and legislators simply caved to pressure from the law enforcement lobby,” he said. “They opposed this because they were concerned about greater accountability, and that’s at odds with the public interest.”
Calls for greater attention to police violence in low-income and minority communities catapulted into the national spotlight in late 2014, as outrage over the shooting of Michael Brown by a white officer in Ferguson, Mo., grew from raucous protests into the Black Lives Matter movement.
When California lawmakers responded to the furor last year with a suite of bills focused on policing practices, nearly all of them failed. Various measures regulating the use of body cameras by police bogged down in disagreements over whether to require them and under what conditions. Ultimately, an anti-racial profiling proposal passed, after activists elevated it to a rallying cry late in the session.
But events during the fall and winter kept attention on the issue, including the McDonald video and the December death of Mario Woods, a San Francisco man shot by police after he was confronted about a stabbing. Their final encounter was recorded on cellphones by passers-by.
The outcry prompted more bills this session, including a measure from Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, to open investigative records on police shootings and misconduct and additional body camera proposals, primarily focused on what to do with the footage. Some originated from police organizations and others from groups that have challenged their approach as too opaque, reflecting the ongoing debate.
Quirk’s bill sought to make body camera footage available for public request within 60 days of alleged misconduct by an officer, unless the officer was criminally prosecuted, in which case the release would have been at a judge’s discretion. Quirk cautioned that video evidence can get buried by internal investigations that never end. Opposed by law enforcement, his measure died last week on the Assembly floor.
Assembly Bill 2611, by Assemblyman Evan Low, D-Campbell, would block the release of audio or video depicting the death of an officer or anything so “morbid and sensational” as to be “highly offensive.” It passed unanimously out of the Assembly last month and heads next to the Senate.
The ACLU and newspaper publishers have sought to block Assembly Bill 2533, which would give officers three days’ notice before the public release of any footage of them and allow them to request an injunction if they feel the disclosure would put them in harms’ way. The Assembly overwhelmingly approved it last month.
Assemblyman Miguel Santiago, a Los Angeles Democrat who authored the legislation, said it is important to strike a balance between public information and officer safety.
“There ought to be an opportunity for a police officer to be notified,” Santiago said. “Police officers are people, and they have the same right as everybody to protect their safety.”
The measure was sponsored by the Peace Officers Research Association. Durant said the group favors implementing body cameras and wants to collaborate with communities on accountability and oversight efforts, but the ability to instantaneously share information online has created new challenges.
Officers are finding out about the release of footage through the internet, he said. “What our main concern is here is to stop the immediacy of the social media platforms,” he said.
By far the most controversial was Leno’s SB 1286, which would have made public the records related to investigations of police use of force leading to death or serious injury, as well as sustained findings of misconduct. Sponsored by the ACLU and newspaper publishers, it would also have required police to notify victims’ families of the result of an investigation.
Leno previously tackled this issue a decade ago, after the 2006 Copley Press v. San Diego ruling that the records of administrative appeals of police misconduct findings are confidential, but his bill did not get very far. With several families in his district waiting for months on news about their complaints, he said he was inspired to take it on again.
“Civil society is dependent on the difficult and hard work of our law enforcement officers. But they can only do that work with the trust of the communities they serve. And that trust has been seriously frayed,” Leno said. “I do not believe that secrecy will benefit the rebuilding of that trust.”
SB 1286 was held on the Senate suspense file after intense lobbying by law enforcement groups, who said it went too far in violating the rights of officers. Durant warned that making the information public could subject them to retribution or harassment from criminals, who might bombard departments with false accusations to tie them up in investigations. He added that association is still working to introduce its own bill on citizen complaints and transparency this session.
Leno and supporters decried what they say are misleading claims about the effects of the bill. They point to other large states, like Florida, where similar policies are already in place and say law enforcement fears have not materialized.
Though Leno terms out in November, Bibring said the ACLU hopes to take up the subject again.
By making footage and other records more public, he said, departments cannot look the other way on wrongful use of force, and communities can determine for themselves whether their police have standards in place that match their values about public safety.
“They’re doing themselves a disservice,” Bibring said. “By fighting so hard to keep everything secret, they create the impression there’s something to hide.”