In the first California case law on the issue, an appellate court has ruled that a Eureka police patrol car’s dashboard camera video of an arrest was not a confidential peace officer personnel record exempt from disclosure under the California Public Records Act.
And as detailed in a report by Thadeus Greenson in today’s news blog of the North Coast Journal in Eureka, the California Supreme Court, as urged by Californians Aware and others, has let the First District Court of Appeal’s opinion stand as citable precedent, despite the city’s request that it be de-published and put off limits as legal authority.
From the outset, the city had argued that the police cruiser’s dashboard camera video recording of the roadside arrest of a juvenile suspect by a patrol officer was confidential. The City contended that the recording was a part of the officer’s personnel file and not available as a public record requested by Greenson, who was following up on a witness’s complaint alleging the officer’s use of excessive force.
Both the juvenile court, which had custody of the recording, and the California Court of Appeal disagreed. The latter noted that the arrest video was created before either the witness complaint or the resulting internal affairs investigation occurred, and thus was not a record of that investigation made confidential by the police disciplinary secrecy law (see City of Eureka v. Superior Court, First District July 19 — http://www.courts.ca.gov/opinions/documents/A145701.PDF
This decision’s rationale undermines the frequently heard argument from officer unions—so far not tested in court— that bodycam recordings are exempt from disclosure as confidential peace officer personnel records.
COMMENT: But the fact remains that the overwhelming tendency in California law is to deny transparency to official records of citizen complaints of police misconduct, even when substantiated by departmental investigation, and even when they result in discipline or dismissal. That policy will stand in the way of trust in and support for police in many communities until it is ended. Doubtless the arrogant, contemptuous, racist, violence-prone and otherwise unfit officers constitute only a tiny minority, but they are the ones whose approach to law enforcement will increasingly show up on YouTube, to the detriment of the professional majority.