After a “Black Lives Matter” demonstration in Berkeley on December 6 over the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner turned into a violent confrontation with law enforcement, the National Lawyers Guild filed a Public Records Act request to see police body camera videos of the event.
The Hayward Police Department lent a hand at the protest, and the petitioners asked for footage from two of its officers during a 34-minute period and from five officers at two different times, each for less than 38 minutes. The department charged $1 for the DVD disc and $2,937.58 for staff time, numbers to keep in mind when posting videos to Facebook and YouTube. Time is big money.
The guild protested the fee as too high but paid it on August 18, while filing another request for more videos. A week later, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Northern California filed a lawsuit (pdf) in Alameda County Superior Court on behalf of the guild demanding the fee be returned.
The lawsuit argues, “An agency is only permitted to impose additional charges when the request would require data compilation, extraction or programming to produce the record. . . . The body camera video requested do not require” any of that.
“Such a hefty price tag will put these public records beyond the reach of most Californians, including journalists investigating possible instances of excessive force by police,” ACLU senior counsel Alan Schlosser said in a statement. He said body cams and the Public Information Act are both “intended to promote government transparency and accountability.”
Transparency was on President Obama’s list of intentions when he proposed spending $75 million in federal dollars to equip local police with cameras. That seemed fair, considering the hundreds of millions of federal dollars spent to equip local police with military gear and high-tech surveillance equipment.
Hillary Clinton said in April that all police should wear body cams “to improve transparency.” An Associated Press survey earlier in the year indicated about a quarter of law enforcement agencies nationwide used them in some capacity.
It is unclear what law enforcement’s intention is when it comes to body cams. At least a dozen state legislatures, with police support, have considered laws restricting public access to footage.
National Lawyers Guild chapter president Rachel Lederman said, “Police departments have a lot of ways to avoid disclosing videos to the public. The ridiculous amount Hayward is charging is one way.”
Another way is simply refusing to release them.
The city of Los Angeles is putting body cameras on 860 officers this month, and plans to eventually equip 7,000. LAPD said it won’t let the public see recordings unless they are part of a criminal or civil court proceeding. The Los Angeles Police Commission voted 3-1, however, to let the police review the videos before writing their reports or talking to internal investigators.