Police need to get tough enough for transparency

As faith in law enforcement has been undermined by a seemingly endless string of police abuses, one reform has come up repeatedly.

Body cameras are about to become ubiquitous, nationally and in California. That’s good. There’s nothing like an electronic witness to keep cops and civilians alike on the straight and narrow. In fact, many of the calls for more oversight have arisen from some egregious civilian video or another; last week, the ACLU introduced a new app for the public to upload clips showing excessive force.

But the body cams now being shipped to departments across the country also come with major side issues, from data security to the ethics of mass surveillance. Right now, departments are handling these issues piecemeal, but state lawmakers have introduced a package of bills to impose some uniform rules across the state.

These issues are complex and need to be worked out deliberately and wisely. Unfortunately, law enforcement lobbyists threw the first serious attempt at a statewide body-cam policy into a legislative chokehold last week.

In terms of sheer, brute force – and emotional weakness – the spectacle that accompanied Assembly Bill 66 on Thursday at the Assembly Privacy and Consumer Protection Committee was not a good sign. If police and sheriffs’ deputies can’t be made to realize how furious the public has become, and how crucial it is that they overcome their kneejerk fear of independent oversight, the millions of dollars being spent on this new technology will do zero to restore public trust.

AB 66 is one of at least three bills dealing with body cams this session. Authored by Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, D-San Diego, it originally barred officers who had killed someone in the line of duty from studying body-cam footage before putting their initial report on the record.

The measure would allow officers to view the footage later and even amend their reporting. But lethal-force cases often hinge legally on the perceptions of officers in the moment that they pull the trigger. Civil liberties groups argue that access to potential evidence against them might taint officers’ memories or tempt them to tailor their reports.

The Oakland Police Department follows this policy with its body cams, and officials there testified that it has been successful. But the notion of questioning an officer’s word unleashed blowback from law enforcement lobbyists.

Such a policy, they insisted, would open the door to inaccuracies that defense lawyers would tear apart in court to make good cops look bad. Lethal-force cases, they pointed out, also usually stem from chaotic events that are hard to recall accurately because they unfold in a rush.

There’s middle ground here; Los Angeles’ new police policy, for instance, lets officers see the footage, with a supervisor’s authorization. But law enforcement lobbyists and their friends on the committee refused to compromise.

Assemblyman Jim Cooper, D-Elk Grove, in particular, appeared to have decided that he’d been sent to the Capitol to represent, not the public, but his old work pals back at the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department. Memo to Cooper: The deputies already have lobbyists. Lawmakers are supposed to look out for the whole state.

By the time Weber’s bill made it out of committee, the viewing provision might as well have been written by some police union. The only good news was that the whole bill didn’t die.

Lawmakers should put AB 66 back on a middle path as it moves through the Legislature, if for no other reason than that other body-cam questions also need attention.

What about witness protection, for instance? How much control should we give victims over the images that are collected? And how much footage will the public get to see?

Meanwhile, law enforcement needs to understand that these demands for oversight aren’t some passing fancy. America’s worst fears about bad cops have been borne out on video from Los Angeles to South Carolina.

It’s a new world, one in which everyone is watching – and wondering whether the police will ever become tough enough for transparency.