Ten months after Richmond police began wearing body cameras on patrol, the department is moving to expand its use of video, including cameras in patrol cars that sync with the cameras worn by officers.
Police Lt. Albert Walle, who oversees the department’s body camera and ShotSpotter systems, said during an interview that Richmond police are striving to be “more transparent with the public” at a time of increased scrutiny of police use of deadly force.
The department has been testing its new video system since the first cameras were issued in January to all sergeants and officers. Lieutenants are next in line to be equipped with the “body cams,” which record continuously when in use.
Police officials said they hope to install cameras for all patrol cars soon. In order to sync the car cameras with the body cams the technology needs to be updated, Walle said.
A grant from the U.S. Department of Justice will be paying for the new cameras, and possibly the costly masking software that would be used to blur out the faces of any juveniles and abuse victims who could be seen in the footage.
All officers carrying a body camera are instructed to turn the device on when responding to calls or initiating any activity involving interaction with the public. But there are also circumstances in which the body cameras are supposed to be shut off, such as when the citizen interacting with the police officer expresses a clear wish not to be recorded, or when the privacy of sexual assault victims is at stake.
“We hope that the recording is consensual. For the most, we try to record almost every law enforcement activity,” Walle said.
In spite of these requirements, a Richmond police officer had shot a man in January without turning on his body camera before going on duty. The man, Marceleno Gonzales, was critically injured and the officer was not publicly identified. At the time, police were still testing the cameras, officials said.
At the end of an officer’s shift, he or she is required to download all footage from the body camera and upload the files onto a platform for supervisors to review when needed. Following the shift, police reports are written based on the footage captured on duty.
East bay civil rights lawyer Jim Chanin said he approves of police use of body cameras, saying that they discourage officers from intentional wrongdoing. However, Chanin questioned the Richmond department policy of having officers write police reports based on the footage their cameras took on patrol duty.
“They can leave out details that are not shown depending on the angle of the camera,” said Chanin, who said he favors of the Oakland police’s rule of viewing the videos after police reports are completed.
Richmond Police Chief Chris Magnus and others in the department have been accused by a Richmond family of making public statements suggesting inappropriate limits on release of police video.
The family of Richard “Pedie” Perez, who was shot and killed by a Richmond police officer a year ago during a scuffle, claim the police want to hold back video footage that might damage the department’s reputation or make an officer look bad.
Perez died several months before the RPD began employing body cameras, which became more prominent amid the nationwide debate over police shootings. The death of Michael Brown and others prompted many police departments to order body cameras to “protect both police and citizens,” Magnus said last year.
Rick Perez claims that police may only be releasing for public scrutiny footage clearing an officer’s name. Walle denied this and defended the department’s policy, which requires bringing the city attorney’s office into the decision-making early on.
“When a citizen puts in a request to see a certain piece of footage or record, this goes to the city attorney’s office, and they decide what is to be released or not,” Walle said.
However, Oakland civil rights lawyer John Burris says there is no current regulation or state law that requires the stamp of approval from the city attorney
Another controversy involves whether police-shot video footage qualifies as a public record and should therefore be accessible to the public at all times.
Burris maintains that when the video involves a death case, family members should be shown the footage even before an investigation begins to better understand the situation. If the police were to offer a public statement explaining their reasons for certain actions, the footage should accompany the explanation.
“Otherwise, the release of the videos should depend on the process of any ongoing investigation. There are possibilities that the investigation may be compromised if the footage is shown too soon,” said Burris.
Richmond’s policy requires that videos be kept for 180 days after being downloaded, and in criminal cases, a copy of the video is made to be used as evidence, Walle said. So far, he added, no one has requested to see the footage from police body cameras.
Walle emphasized that police are allowed to do no editing.
“The police don’t have the ability or the power to edit the footage. What footage we turn over to the city attorney is kept in its entirety,” he said.