San Jose police required to fast track body-camera footage for major incidents
The videos subject to the new policy will be of incidents that faced intense public scrutiny
In an effort to be more transparent, the San Jose Police Department will now be required to fast track the public release of officer body-camera footage for incidents deemed of “extraordinary public interest” when requested by city leadership, according to a new policy.
Under the new rules approved Tuesday, the San Jose City Council has the authority to direct the city manager — to whom the police chief reports — to publicly disclose video footage from high-profile police incidents like the confrontations between officers and demonstrators during the George Floyd protests earlier this year.
“I think it’s important for us to get a policy in place so we can rapidly respond when there is a public inquiry for the video footage,” Mayor Sam Liccardo said at a council meeting Tuesday. “Hopefully this will be another step in our effort to continue to build trust in our community.”
The move comes after a concerted push by Liccardo for the release of body-camera footage taken during protests sparked by the police killing of Floyd last summer in Minneapolis and his calls on the police department to expedite the release of police disciplinary records following a lawsuit filed by the Bay Area News Group after the city failed to comply with a landmark police-transparency law. The policy, and recent updates to the police department’s duty manual, define “incidents of extraordinary public interest” as those in which “interactions between the police and the public result in significant and sustained public outcry,” including large protests and controversial uses of force.
The police department will be required to release at least 10 minutes of footage prior to an incident to provide greater context of an encounter.
There is some latitude built into the new policy, like when an incident yields a large array of footage where the processing “would unduly consume the time and labor of staff.” In those cases, the city can meet its obligation by releasing the three videos they deem “most clearly and fully capture the event,” the policy states.
Senate Bill 1421, the state law passed in 2018, compels the release of previously confidential records of officers’ serious use of force — including shootings — and misconduct cases where on-duty dishonesty and sexual assault were sustained by their department. Relevant records include officers’ body-camera footage. A parallel law, AB 748, compels the public disclosure of officers’ body-worn camera footage within 45 days of a critical incident, with exceptions carved out for ongoing investigations, a classification that exists almost entirely at a police department’s discretion. The council’s actions Tuesday appear to be aimed at narrowing when that exemption would be valid.
David Snyder, executive director of the Bay Area-based First Amendment Coalition, said “the new city policy is a reflection of a deep need for police agencies to be more transparent than they’re currently being.”
“The law changed substantially almost two years ago to provide more transparency and still we’re seeing intense resistance to meet the letter of the law. They are continuing to fight tooth and nail in some instances,” Snyder said. “To the extent this new policy expands transparency, that’s great. It’s additional pressure on the police department to release records.” Snyder added that the new San Jose policy could still encounter hurdles given the broad language of “extraordinary public interest” and existing statutory protections outside the scope of SB 1421 and similar laws.
“Some of the records that would fall under that broad definition probably would still be classified as confidential under state law. I don’t know that a local ordinance can override mandatory confidential records,” he said. “But with what police are allowed to release, it will likely lead to more records being released, and more promptly.”
After initial requests for the police department to release video footage from the Floyd protests that transpired in late May and early June, Police Chief Eddie Garcia said it could take the department up to a year to release video footage, citing ongoing Internal Affairs investigations and pending litigation.
Instead, the police department collected and posted video footage that was already well-circulated on social media or taken by various media outlets but withheld internal video footage of protests.
In September, the department acquiesced and released internal footage from half of a dozen incidents that took place during the protests and began working on a policy to make the process for releasing videos of high public interest quicker and easier. Garcia acknowledged in a city memo this week that while the initial decision to withhold the videos “aligned with existing law and past practice, it did not meet the evolving community expectations of openness and transparency.”
In a statement Wednesday, Paul Kelly, president of the city’s police union, said he was pleased the policy was adopted and that the union was “appreciative of the specific protections to ensure officer safety that were included.” Those protections include notifying officers before footage of them is released to the public and blurring out the faces of officers who withhold their consent under certain circumstances. The police department’s initial reservations for releasing internal video footage dovetails with the Bay Area News Group filing a lawsuit against the city and SJPD in July to force the release of dozens of files on officer misconduct and use of force after the city failed to comply with the law and honor a public records act request from the news organization.
In response to a January 2019 public records request, the city staff estimated that it would take years to review and release more than 80 files sought by the Bay Area News Group and KQED News. Those estimates have narrowed significantly since the litigation.