End the confusion with real rules for body cams

Sacramento’s latest police shooting controversy underscores the need for consistent rules on body cams.
Sacramento’s latest police shooting controversy underscores the need for consistent rules on body cams. Los Angeles Times file

With some departments refusing to release any body-cam footage from officers and other departments releasing it inconsistently, it’s hard to believe the aftermath of a questionable police shooting could be any more confusing for Californians.

Leave it to the Sacramento City Council to prove it’s possible – and, in the process, offer up an example of why every police department in the state needs predictable rules for releasing videos of shootings.

The council members surely meant well Monday when they made the unprecedented request to see the surely gruesome video of Joseph Mann being killed by Sacramento police on the morning of July 11.

Police say Mann, who was 51, homeless and black, was carrying a knife and threatening people with it. The officers said they feared for their lives and so riddled his body with at least 16 bullets.

Mann’s family is suing the city, convinced the officers could have de-escalated the situation. They say he was mentally ill – an assertion bolstered by witnesses, who said Mann was doing karate chops as he walked away from officers toward Del Paso Boulevard that morning.

Homicide detectives this week wrapped up a criminal investigation into the case. Meanwhile, the rumors and conspiracy theories in the community just won’t stop.

An easy way to clarify matters would be for the Sacramento police to release the footage from the officers’ cameras. But the Police Department doesn’t typically do that. Therefore, members of the City Council and the mayor decided to get involved.

“How do we as a council interface with the Police Department over these types of incidents, and what is our responsibility and how do we oversee the process?” Councilman Larry Carr asked. “It can’t be that the City Council’s only oversight of the Police Department is to approve a budget. That situation can’t exist.”

But after getting legal advice in a closed session Tuesday, the council members changed their minds – at least until the Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office has had a chance to review the completed investigation.

It makes legal sense to back off. But all of this could have been avoided in the first place if Sacramento had a coherent policy on how and when body-cam footage should be released.

Then, everyone, from the council to the mayor to the public, would know what to expect and no one would feel the need to interrupt the investigatory process to ensure justice. There would be real transparency.

The Sacramento Community Police Commission is working on just such a policy, and that’s great. But this is bigger than one city.

For two years, the Legislature has been trying to come up with reasonable statewide rules for the use of body cams, only to be thwarted by police unions. For the sake of restoring public trust in law enforcement across California, this needs to change.