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Calif. officers frustrated by footage of confrontations

Members of the force are frustrated that a new city policy requiring release of video in extreme confrontations unfairly portrays their department


By Anita Chabria
The Sacramento Bee

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Responding to low morale and frustration on the police force, Sacramento may consider wider release of police videos to include everyday interactions and incidents where officers appear in a positive light – a practice that would make the department among the most forthcoming in the nation with official footage.

Mayor Darrell Steinberg and Tim Davis, head of the Sacramento police officers union, said members of the force are dispirited that a new city policy requiring release of video in extreme confrontations unfairly portrays their department. In the most recent example, an officer was captured on tape last month tackling a pedestrian to the ground and repeatedly punching him in Del Paso Heights.

Steinberg called Tuesday for the city to consider releasing “as much video as possible” to show “everyday interactions, incidents that occur where the police officer acted in the right,” which he said would boost department morale. He also, however, supports releasing video from lesser confrontations that don’t meet the current threshold.

“The police have ... rightly complained that with our current video release policy, the only thing the public sees is the controversial shooting. Well, there is a lot more to see,” said Steinberg at Tuesday’s City Council meeting. “Transparency is transparency and we have the technology now to be able to actually do more than we are doing in a way that I think could bridge some of the trust gap that we hear so much about.”

A Sacramento city policy approved last year requires that footage of police shootings, deaths in custody and some citizen complaints be released to the public within 30 days, unless the City Council grants a waiver. The council responded to community demands for more transparency following controversial police shootings in the city and elsewhere in the nation.

Davis said the current video release policy is partly to blame for an exodus of officers from the department. He said negative videos have left some officers feeling undervalued and unappreciated, causing them to look elsewhere for work.

“If the city through this policy is going to select the most tragic incidents and release that video, then they need to find the most triumphant and release it,” said Davis. “It’s not fair to just tell one side of the story.”

Police chief Brian Louie told the council that 28 officers are projected to leave Sacramento’s force this year for jobs at other departments. By comparison, 20 officers left last year and 19 in 2015.

Police spokesman Matt McPhail said the department currently has the discretion to release video in non-critical incidents but does not regularly do so in part because it lacks the manpower to edit the footage – the department currently blurs faces and identifying details such as license plate numbers. Also, he said, the department has not determined that releasing more video is the best course.

“I know it seems really simple to say you have it why don’t you just do it, but there are a lot more calculations,” said McPhail. “The question is by putting that video out, what is the value and what is the potential negative?”

Some community leaders also expressed reservations about the idea.

Les Simmons, a member of Sacramento Area Congregations Together, said releasing more video would likely not impact community trust or resolve the department’s “PR problem.”

Simmons said the department had been slow to release video under the existing policy and missed the 30-day mandate during a March incident. Repairing community relations would best be done by “holding (officers) accountable in places where they need to be held accountable ... In those moments you will see trust start to build,” said Simmons.

Police in recent weeks have expanded collection of video, deploying body cameras on field officers. Currently, the department has about 100 body-worn units up and running, McPhail said.

He said many officers assigned to the south area of the city and downtown have received and are using body cameras, and the department remains on schedule to have all sworn officers using them by fall. Officers who don’t have cars with dash cameras, such as horse, motorcycle and bike officers, received the body cameras first, he said.

Police union head Davis has met privately with Steinberg and said after Tuesday’s City Council meeting that he supports expanding video release as a practice.

Steinberg pointed to the Seattle Police Department as a model for greater video release. Seattle police spokesman Jonah Spangenthal-Lee said his department releases video in critical incidents ,such as shootings, within 72 hours but often as soon as 24 hours. The department also puts out video and other materials when “we think there is public interest or public value,” said Spangenthal-Lee.

He said the video release was not mandated by policy, although the city is currently working on a policy. The releases help “show people all the work that goes into public safety and tell that story,” he said.

Both Steinberg and Davis said any change in video releases would need to consider the privacy of residents and police.

McPhail said the current policy is “not typically showcasing the big picture of what policing is,” but added that many officers had safety and privacy concerns and might not want the notoriety that increased video access could bring, even when it highlighted positive actions.

“It is difficult to have all of our people want to have their names and faces put out there publicly,” said McPhail. “These are the same sorts of questions that agencies across the country are having, balancing privacy rights of the public, privacy rights of their own employees, versus what we want to and need to lawfully release. There is a tension between those factors and there is not an easy answer.”

Editing also has proved costly and time-intensive for police. Davis said the department would likely require greater funding and staffing if more video is released.

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©2017 The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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