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San Diego Cops Risk Being Fired For Not Pressing Record On Body Cameras

Photo caption: San Diego Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman and Margaret Dooley-Sammuli, the ACL...

Photo by Claire Trageser

San Diego Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman and Margaret Dooley-Sammuli, the ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties' policy director, talk on a community panel about police body cameras. October 14, 2014.

San Diego Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman and local community leaders talked about the new police policy for body cameras at a community forum.

If a police shooting like the one that happened in Ferguson, Missouri, happened in San Diego, Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman said she would want the event captured on a police officer's body camera and she would likely release footage of the incident.

"The public wants information on exactly what happened. So if you take a situation like that, and that body-worn camera can tell exactly what happened, then that would be something that is very positive, because right now in that situation nobody really knows what happened," Zimmerman said. "I actually wonder what would happen if the officer or somebody had a body-worn camera to show exactly what happened."

But a Ferguson-type shooting was one of the few examples where the chief said the video should be released. All police body camera videos are considered evidence and usually won't be made public, except in instances that serve public safety, Zimmerman said.

She did not say who would make the decision on when public safety is being served or how that would be determined.

"If there was an incident where it makes sense for the public safety to put it out there as to whatever the video shows, then that is something that I would definitely consider," Zimmerman said.

The chief and four other local leaders spoke on the San Diego Police Department's new body camera policy at a community forum Tuesday night hosted by the San Diego chapter of the Society for Professional Journalists.

Police began using body cameras this past summer after allegations of racial profiling and sexual misconduct by officers. Currently 300 patrol officers wear body cameras, and the department plans to outfit all patrol officers with the devices by the end of next year, Zimmerman said.

She said officers' cameras are always worn, and they are required to press record every time they make contact with a member of the public. If they don't, she said, they could be disciplined, including being fired. At first, however, she is being lenient with those rules, the chief said.

"It takes a little bit of training at the beginning. You have to get that muscle memory to remember to do it," she said. "This is something that's new. I've been putting my radio on forever, and occasionally I still forget to put it on."

She said the cameras are also not easy to turn off.

"It has to be stopped by pressing that button for a couple seconds or so," Zimmerman said. "I'm not saying it's impossible that it couldn't go off in a struggle, but it would be unlikely that it would."

The chief said the department will check regularly to be sure officers are recording every time they're supposed to record. For example, an officer who makes six stops in one day should have at least six recorded videos, she said.

So far, she said, her officers like the cameras.

"I make a point every week to talk to the officers that have these cameras, and I ask them how it's going," she said. "In every case, the officers have said that they have not had any instances where they wished they didn't have it, and there's been numerous times where they were so grateful that they had the camera."

The other panelists were Margaret Dooley-Sammuli, policy director of the American Civil Liberties Union of San Diego & Imperial Counties; Brian Marvel, president of the San Diego Police Officers Association; Victor Torres, a member of the San Diego La Raza Lawyers Association board; and Lei-Chala Wilson, president of the NAACP San Diego branch.

They all said they support the department's use of body cameras and they think the cameras will help build trust in police officers.

The panelists also agreed that footage from the cameras should not be made public because of privacy concerns. However, like Zimmerman, they said there would be times when a specific video should be released.

"If a video is going to be made public, that should only happen when there is a real public interest in that happening," said Dooley-Sammuli. "For example, there is no public service provided by releasing a video of someone looking silly during a sobriety check. But there could be public interest in a video of a particularly contentious incident where community concerns are boiling or the department might feel that if they release a video, it helps them demonstrate that an officer was behaving well and to quell concerns and address them head on. Could be to show that the officer did not behave well and that the department is taking it seriously, they're transparent and they're going to address it."

Zimmerman said the current policy is that officers do not have to tell people they're being recorded, even inside their homes. But if someone asks, she said, then officers must say that they are recording.

Dooley-Sammuli said she would like the policy to change to require that people be told they're being recorded.

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