RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
It's been much noted that the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore might never have been noticed had it not been for a video taken by an onlooker, which is why protests in Baltimore and other cities over alleged police conduct have led to calls for more police to wear cameras. Those video recordings could in theory provide accountability and transparency. But as NPR's Richard Gonzales reports, it's also introducing the question of whether to let police see the videos they record.
RICHARD GONZALES, BYLINE: Last summer, a rookie police officer in Oakland, Calif. pulled his gun on a man and his two young sons outside of a fire department station at night. The action was recorded by the cop's body camera.
(SOUNDBITE OF BODY CAMERA RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED OFFICER: Put the bag down. Put your hands up. Put your hands up. Turn around.
GONZALES: The cop quickly learned that the suspect wasn't a burglar but rather an off-duty firefighter.
(SOUNDBITE OF BODY CAMERA RECORDING)
KEITH JONES: I'm an Oakland firefighter. That's my truck right there. See the K and J in the front? See the firefighter plates?
UNIDENTIFIED OFFICER: Stay right there. Don't move.
GONZALES: Fortunately, the confusion was over in just a couple of minutes, as the firefighter, who is black, convinced the cop, who is white, that there was no crime. The office apologized. But like virtually any video involving police these days, the incident went viral, in part because a body camera video existed in the first place. The Oakland Police Department has been using body cameras since 2010, and they've had an impact. Cases of use of force and citizen complaints are both down says police Chief Sean Whent. The question is whether officers' reports fit what their cameras have recorded.
SEAN WHENT: Our experience has been that the evidence has largely supported the actions of the police officers and shown that they were in fact behaving appropriately.
GONZALES: Whent has been in Sacramento a lot lately, testifying on behalf of a hotly contested proposed law. The bill would have prevented police officers from reviewing their own recordings before giving a statement whenever they were involved in a case of the use of force. Whent says he wants to know what a cop recalls from an incident, not what the video recorded. That's important because it goes to the cop's state of mind.
WHENT: And we believe that the public has more faith in the process if the officer does not watch the video prior.
GONZALES: It's all about transparency, says Whent. But many law enforcement groups aren't buying that. They've rallied in opposition to the measure, saying it would undermine accurate police reports. And, they say, it presumes that the police will lie.
MIKE RAINS: That's - that's absurd.
GONZALES: Mike Rains is an attorney who specializes in representing police officers and their unions.
RAINS: It really is the only reason for not showing an officer a video, is that, OK, we don't want you to be able to get your story straight. And it's all premised on that. It's crazy.
GONZALES: Crazy or not, this debate is just one of the questions raised by cops and body cameras. Throughout the nation, policymakers are talking about rules for when a cop's camera should be turned on, where the recordings will be stored and when the video will be shared with the public, if at all. But this issue of whether a cop can see his or her video before writing a report is the most contentious, says Laurie Levenson, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. Sure, she says, there is a risk that some cops will tailor their reports based on their videos.
LAURIE LEVENSON: On the other hand, it may not be possible for them to be as much as a schemer as people think they can be because you have lots of videos, not just the one that might be on the officer himself. In this day and age, we might have videos from other perspectives. And they cannot anticipate what those will show.
GONZALES: Still, it appears that for now, law enforcement is winning the debate. Earlier this week, the Los Angeles Police Commission voted to allow LAPD cops to review their video before writing reports. And then yesterday, the California assembly bill was amended to give police around the state the same right, except in cities like Oakland that already limit the police. Richard Gonzales, NPR News, San Francisco.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.