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    A Standard to Disclose Body Camera Footage

    By Assemblymember Phil Ting

    Law enforcement is a tough, but necessary job. Instances of misconduct, alleged or substantiated, receive more controversy because technology allows bystanders to record these incidents on their phones.

    In this context, local law enforcement agencies began equipping officers with body cameras. By 2015, a fifth of all California police departments used them. Today, some of the Bay Area’s largest police departments use them, including Oakland, San Jose, and San Francisco. 

    While the technology carries the promise of accountability, an enduring challenge remains. There is no statewide standard for the release of body camera footage to the public. And, there is no way to compel a law enforcement agency to disclose this information.

    Instead, law enforcement agencies have inconsistent footage disclosure polices, which leads to the assumption that the agency has something to hide. This stalemate only serves to further injure community relations, especially in instances where we see citizens capturing, taping and releasing their own footage of incidents while the official record is kept secret. I’ve introduced legislation to change that. 

    Supported by the American Civil Liberties Union and the California News Publishers Association, my Assembly Bill (AB) 748 would make law enforcement body camera recordings subject to public disclosure through the Public Records Act. The Act governs the disclosure of information collected and maintained by all public agencies. Generally, it provides record access to ensure the public has a chance to monitor their government and hold it accountable. 

    AB 748 would only allow law enforcement agencies to withhold a video or audio recording if the public’s interest in nondisclosure outweighs public concern for 120 days, allowing for sufficient time for an agency to complete an investigation.

    If a picture is worth a thousand words, a video is worth millions. It’s time we let the footage speak for itself. Right or wrong, withholding body camera footage fuels a toxic brew of mistrust, especially when there are incidents of alleged officer-involved uses of force. The logic is simple and persuasive. If there is no wrongdoing, then there is nothing to fear in the release of body camera footage.

    The strong objections from some members of law enforcement to my bill are disappointing. The public’s right to know is not a trivial concept to be brushed aside. It’s enshrined in our State Constitution. Furthermore, at its core, law enforcement is public service and an extremely necessary one at that. The credibility of its officers rests on the notion that they apply the law equally to everyone, and that they do not impede public oversight into their work.  

    California has a chance to chart a new course where law abiding community members and officers can get the respect they deserve. That is why we need AB 748.

    Phil Ting (D-San Francisco) represents the 19th Assembly District, which includes the Westside of San Francisco along with the communities of Broadmoor, Colma, Daly City, and parts of South San Francisco.