With the use of officer-worn body cameras escalating California, state lawmakers are now trying to get a handle on the practice — before major problems arise.
They’re discovering that body cams, as is the case with so many emerging technologies, present complex issues and potential, undesirable consequences.
San Diego Assembly Member Shirley Weber (D-79th) has introduced AB 66, which would create a statewide task force to establish "best practices" guidelines.
"Our main objective coming in was not because (body cameras) had to do with the enforcement of law,” Weber said Friday during a recording session for Sunday’s edition of NBC 7’s “Politically Speaking” public affairs program.
“It was because people thought they were being abused. So we have to be very careful that we do protect the rights of the individual."
Routine traffic stops caught on camera may not raise issues of citizen abuse very often.
But all too many stops don't stay routine — prompting questions about probable cause for detainment and possible racial profiling.
In the hope and belief that body cams will help resolve and clarify law enforcement encounters and incidents, the city of San Diego is spending $4 million to equip hundreds of its police officers with the cameras.
They already have guidelines about when to start recording.
But there are concerns among the public — reflected in many of some 700 responses by NBC 7 social media followers polled on the issue — about the circumstances under which officers may stop recording.
“I like the idea,” Ebony Luna wrote in a post to NBC 7’s Facebook page, “(but) would love it better if the cop didn't have the ability to turn it off.”
San Diego Police Officers Assn. President Brian Marvel said an officer must be given certain situational discretion to turn off the camera:
"There could be certain circumstances regarding sexual assault victims, the privacy concerns in that area,” Marvel said during the “Politically Speaking” discussions.
“Confidential informants — they may not want to have it on during that time because a lot of people, when they are on cameras, may not be as forthcoming with information that they want to give us."
SDPD Chief Shelley Zimmerman said her department is on the cutting edge of body-cam use nationwide: “We’re the eighth largest city in the United States, and if you take all the other larger cities above us, we have more body-worn cameras out right now — 600 cameras — than all of the others combined.”
While Zimmerman says SDPD and its rank-and-file officers are “95 percent” in agreement regarding the department’s policy manual, civil libertarians think statewide guidelines covering all legal ramifications and privacy concerns are essential.
"A big concern is what happens if they don't have prosecution? Or what happens in addition to that?” asked Margaret Dooley-Sammuli, policy director for the San Diego and Imperial Counties chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. “Is (the video) released to the public? It shouldn't be, basically, unless there's strong public interest. There's no public interest in humiliating individuals."
Weber is reaching out to a wide range of "stakeholders" to vet the issues.
She's said she’s aiming to have the task force offer policy recommendations — and possible bills to go to floor votes — by June, before the Legislature's summer recess starts July 1.