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California Western Hosts Debate on Police Body Cameras

Sheriff's Lt. George Calderon, Alex Simpson of the California Innocence Project, San Diego Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman

“We are the largest city in the U.S. to have body cameras,” said San Diego Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman, at a California Western School of Law debate on the use of the body camera technology in law enforcement. “It’s a win-win—it holds both the officers and the public accountable.”

The event, held on October 1, drew a large audience of law students, the legal community, the public, and more than half a dozen media outlets.

“If used in the proper way, body cameras can be used not just for convictions, but to show if proper police procedures are being used—and whether reforms are needed,” said panelist Adjunct Professor Alex J. Simpson, associate director of the California Innocence Project (CIP) at California Western. “For us, access to the video later on is going to be a very important issue, just as we fought for greater access to DNA,” referring to how DNA testing even years after the fact has helped the CIP free clients who were wrongfully convicted.

“Access will be one of the most important issues,” Kellen Russionello of the American Civil Liberties Union, on whether police body camera video should always be released to the public. “Does the public have a serious right to know in the case?”

The debate was held against a background of a number of highly emotional and controversial police incidents nationally that were captured on video by citizens—and some that weren’t. Many feel that police body cameras will reduce police misconduct.

“It’s had a dramatic impact already,” said Frank Birchak, San Diego County Public Defender, whose office reviews hundreds of hours of police body camera video each week for its cases. “In San Diego, the rollout of body cameras has been impressive.”

There was disagreement between Chief Zimmerman and the ACLU’s Russionello on the issue of whether officers should review their video before writing their report on an incident. Both he and Birchak wondered whether the video might influence the officer’s perceptions and recollections of what happened.

“I totally disagree,” said Zimmerman. “Video helps officers write better, more accurate reports.”

Lieutenant George Calderon of the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department pointed out that when such video is shown to a jury in court as evidence, then it is being seen in a public setting. His department is currently studying whether to put body cameras on deputies in the field.

Birchak said the broadcasting of police body camera video in the media can “affect due process.”

The panelists agreed that the most important element of the use of police body cameras is a department’s policy and how they will be used.

Chief Zimmerman noted that in the two years since SDPD has been using the cameras, the number of complaints against officers has dropped 23 percent, while assaults on officers have risen 36 percent.

The highly successful event was hosted by California Western School of Law, XONR8, The Criminal Law Association, Amnesty International and the Public Interest Law Foundation.