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Rules Covering Release Of Fresno Body Camera Footage Unclear

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Taser
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A promotional photo from Taser, showing the camera Fresno Police Use

The phrase ‘seeing is believing’ takes on a whole new meaning in a world full of cellphone videos and police body cameras. Every officer in the Fresno Police Department now wears a camera that records the majority of their work. However, what footage is or isn’t released to the public is a murky subject.

Police body camera video captured the fatal shooting of 19-year old Dylan Noble in graphic detail. It was eventually released to the public to answer questions about why the unarmed man was shot.

As Valley Public Radio reported recently, that video footage, coupled with cellphone video taken by a bystander, is part of what has given the story of this shooting such remarkable public interest.

It has also raised new questions about the rules governing the use of the body cameras.

Currently, there are no detailed policies for which videos the Fresno Police release to the public and when.

"For every 1% increase in every officer who actually use the camera or are compliant with the policy, you get a 1% reduction in complaints against the police," researcher Charles Katz

  On the day he released the footage of the shooting, Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer says it should stay that way.

“The policy that we have in place says that the video will be released at the conclusion of the criminal investigation. However, if there is a greater good for that video to be released before that time then I as a police chief have a right to make that decision,” Dyer says.

Currently, Fresno Police consider the videos to be evidence which means they can be withheld from public records requests.

Starting this year every officer in the force is wearing a body camera, like the one that captured the Dylan Noble shooting. But what is the purpose behind strapping a camera on every officer?

Many consider the cameras to be a mechanism to help reduce police use of force, not just capture it.

“For every 1% increase in every officer who actually use the camera or are compliant with the policy, you get a 1% reduction in complaints against the police,” Katz says.

Charles Katz is a researcher in Arizona who studied the impact of body cameras at the Phoenix Police Department. He says since the cameras are still so new there is little research about them.

But what research does exist seems to show that the body cameras reduce police use of force because officers and civilians behave differently when they know they are on camera.

"The existence of the video without its release has been a backwards step when it comes to public trust," Catherine Wagner, ACLU

  But they provide an impartial record for police and the community to observe and interpret.

Katz says this is important because of the high level of authority police are granted.

“What makes them so unique is that they have the ability to use force. They are legally allowed to use deadly force. And for those reasons they need additional training. They need high personnel standards. So that you can reduce the likelihood of those mistakes being made,” Katz says.

But Katz also cautions against being a “Monday morning quarterback” when a person can view the video outside of the heat of an intense encounter.

Civil liberties groups have played up the positive community trust building effects of having officers on film at all times. But there is also a potential the cameras could do the opposite if it’s not clear why videos are or are not released says Catherine Wagner with the ACLU.

“The existence of the video without its release has been a backwards step when it comes to public trust. You know, there is a chance that members of the community will feel that departments are only releasing videos when they make them look good and withholding them when they don’t,” Wagner says.

Wagner says there are no state laws governing when footage can or should be released, leaving it to the departments.

To be sure, not everything captured on an officer’s camera is of public interest.

Think child sex abuse victims, domestic violence victims, or a random DUI stop of a non-public person. Wagner says there are levels of privacy that people who are stopped, questioned, or even arrested by police deserve.

But that is why Wagner says the every department should develop a detailed policy governing the release of the police body video so that the public can clearly understand why particular footage is or isn’t being released.

“When they capture a critical incident like a shooting or a serious use of force. When they capture misconduct. Certainly, serious misconduct. And when the subject themselves requests the video, than they should have access to that,” Wagner said.

And if the person in the video wants to release, Wagner says they should be allowed to.

Wagner points to San Francisco and Oakland Police Departments who she says have detailed policies governing the release of footage including additional steps like blurring faces or excluding personal details if there are privacy concerns about a video’s release.

The state legislature considered several bills regarding setting a statewide standard covering the release of police body cameras, which are paid for with public money and worn by government employees.

But the bills satisfied neither groups like the ACLU or police unions and they died. There has been little movement in the interim.

For the time being, unless Fresno Police develop a concrete policy, release of any future videos will remain up to the discretion of Chief Jerry Dyer.