Stop fighting transparency

For much of this year, bill after bill has been introduced to try to bring some sort of law and order to handling video of police encounters with the public. Most of this legislation has gone nowhere.

Assembly Bill 2611 by Assemblyman Evan Low, D-Campbell, would automatically block the release of body-camera footage that shows the death of a police officer without first getting an OK from the officer’s immediate family.

At first blush, this seems reasonable. It makes sense, at least emotionally, to want to shield the children and spouses of slain officers from the trauma of seeing footage of their deaths.

But it’s not that simple. Police do extraordinarily difficult work, but they are government employees, ultimately answerable to the public. Low’s bill would give officers an unprecedented level of protection from such scrutiny. We understand the impulse. But this is an example of how lobbying from law enforcement groups has resulted in the defeat of several bills that would have provided more transparency on police use of force.

A bill introduced by Assemblyman Bill Quirk, D-Hayward, for example, would have set a 60-day limit for police departments to release body-cam footage. It died in the Assembly. Another from Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, would have made investigations of excessive-force claims public record. It got stuck in suspension.

Not everything has been a slam dunk, though. A bill that would’ve required public agencies to give police three days’ notice before releasing body-cam footage to the public cleared the Assembly, but failed in a Senate committee last week.

One reason is police already have more protections than other government workers. They can, for example, seek an injunction banning release if they have genuine reason to fear for their safety.

Ultimately, what’s being asked for in Low’s bill might not matter anyway because, as several cases have shown, body cameras aren’t the only source of footage to emerge in police shootings.

Most often, it comes from bystanders with smartphones, leading police departments to put out official footage of their own to counteract the going narrative about an officer being at fault. Low’s bill would actually hamper that process, putting this burden of spin on grieving families.

Transparency is unavoidable. Police organizations should stop fighting this battle.