Editorials

In the name of transparency, release police videos

Police Sgt. Bryce Heinlein talks to reporters on July 11, 2016, about the shooting of Joseph Mann in North Sacramento. Mann was armed with knife. Officers say they feared for their lives and were forced to shoot him.
Police Sgt. Bryce Heinlein talks to reporters on July 11, 2016, about the shooting of Joseph Mann in North Sacramento. Mann was armed with knife. Officers say they feared for their lives and were forced to shoot him. ehiller@sacbee.com

It was a warm morning in July when the Sacramento Police Department got a call about an armed man acting erratically near Del Paso Boulevard. Officers arrived and found Joseph Mann, 51, walking around with a knife in his waistband.

Police say he was “agitated” and noncompliant. Mann’s family says he was obviously mentally ill, doing karate chops as he walked away from officers.

Police say he threatened them with the knife – and so they had no choice but to shoot him 16 times. The family isn’t convinced and has filed a civil rights lawsuit. They want police to release dashcam video from the shooting, but police have refused.

“There’s no justification for what they did,” Joseph’s brother Robert told The Bee’s Nashelly Chavez.

Whether that’s true or not, these are the kinds of cases that strain relations between police and the public. In an era when the U.S. Justice Department is hammering police departments across the country for civil rights violations, as it did this week in Baltimore, it’s not enough for officers to use cameras. To ensure transparency and restore trust, they also must release the footage in a timely and predictable manner.

Too often, this doesn’t happen. The Sacramento Community Police Commission is wisely doing its part to change that.

On Monday, a subgroup of the commission floated a plan that would require the Sacramento Police Department to make available all dashboard and body camera footage from officer-involved shootings and in-custody deaths. The information would be housed on a website, released on a specific schedule.

Sacramento’s current policy is never to release video footage.

It’s just a recommendation – one that must be approved by the entire commission and then enacted as an ordinance by the City Council. It’s a process that will take months. But it’s an important first step toward meeting the public’s calls for increased transparency.

Mayor Kevin Johnson established the commission last year. He tasked members with reviewing the department’s training, diversity and community outreach programs, as well as making recommendations to the council on ways to achieve “bias-free policing.”

Video is a logical place to start. The Police Department’s current policy is never to release footage. Attempts to create a framework of rules at the state level have been met with resistance from police unions.

As a result, there are departments, such as in Oakland, that will release footage as long as it doesn’t interfere with an investigation. And there are departments, such as in Los Angeles, that do so only if a judge orders it.

Having a reasonable policy in Sacramento would put the city in line with federal government efforts to keep better track of killings by police.

This week, the Justice Department said it will push thousands of law enforcement agencies and medical examiners’ and coroners’ offices to fill out forms when someone dies in police custody. They also will have to come up with an official tally of such cases every three months.

These tasks, like releasing video footage without delay, are the building blocks of transparency and accountability, and a must for officers to have a positive relationship with the people they serve. The full commission should remember this when it comes time to make recommendations to the Sacramento City Council.

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