Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Oakland Police Let Media Watch Body-Cam Footage of Fatal Incidents, But Refuse to Publicly Release Videos

By Darwin BondGraham
Wed, Aug 19, 2015 at 3:30 PM

click to enlarge FILE PHOTO / BERT JOHNSON
  • file photo / bert johnson
This morning, the Oakland Police Department held an invite-only screening of videos for select members of the media showing recent police incidents that resulted in the deaths of two men. Although OPD allowed this small group of reporters to view the footage, the department is now claiming that the broader public doesn’t have a right to see the videos, and that copies will not be released to the public until several investigations are completed. Legal experts say this policy might be a violation of the California Public Records Act.

Officer Johnna Watson, OPD spokesperson, said she invited eleven print, TV, and radio news organizations to this morning’s viewing. According to Watson, the Express was on the list, but was mistakenly excluded. The Express was later invited to view the footage, but we have not yet seen it.

According to reporters who attended the screening, the videos included police body camera footage taken by officers who were chasing Richard Linyard and Nathaniel Wilks (in two separate incidents). On July 19, Linyard was allegedly fleeing the police on foot when he was later found wedged between two buildings. A coroner’s report said Linyard died from injuries he suffered when he was apparently stuck between the buildings.

On August 12, Wilks allegedly fled the police in a vehicle and then on foot. Several officers confronted and shot Wilks near the intersection of 27th Street and Martin Luther King, Jr. Way.

Watson said OPD showed videos to select members of the media in order to dispel inaccurate reports that officers beat Linyard, and claims that Wilks was shot in the back. Both incidents sparked protests. “We held the viewing in the interest of the public, to be able to share information through fair and balanced reporting,” said Watson.

Watson, however, said that the video footage will not be released to the broader public, and that OPD believes the California Public Records Act allows the department to withhold the footage because it is evidence in several ongoing investigations.

Multiple news organizations and private citizens have requested video footage from OPD pertaining to the deaths of Wilks and Linyard. For each request the department has refused to release the records, calling them evidence.

OPD has also refused to release video footage related to the shooting of Demouria Hogg and Antionio Clements. OPD has not allowed members of the media preferential access to footage in these cases. Furthermore, OPD has refused to disclose the name of the officer who shot Hogg, and has gone so far as to deny a records request seeking emails about the city's decision not to release the officer's name.

“The reason we’re not releasing the video is because there are active investigations, and there are witnesses out there,” said Watson about the footage pertaining to Linyard and Wilks. “Eventually the footage will be released, but right now the investigations are still open, and we don’t want to compromise them. It’s not just a single investigation, there are multiple investigations by OPD internal affairs and homicide, and the Alameda County District Attorney’s office,” said Watson.

James Chanin, an attorney who has worked for over a decade with the Oakland Police Department on a program of court-ordered reforms, criticized the department's actions in a phone interview today: “As a policy it’s outrageous. Second of all, I don’t believe it’s legal." 

He continued: “I believe you cannot allow agencies the right to pick and choose one group of citizens, one newspaper or five, over others. And once a record becomes disclosed to someone, it becomes a public record disclosable to everyone."

“They are pushing into a kind of gray zone here,” added Peter Scheer of the First Amendment Coalition, a group that advocates for government transparency. “But what they’re doing might be justifiable.” According to Scheer, because OPD didn’t provide copies of the video footage to the reporters invited to the screening, the department might not be required to disseminate copies on CD, or online, to the broader public.

“But now they’re required to give a showing to you and anyone else,” said Scheer, meaning that OPD must allow any and all members of the public the opportunity to view the same video footage it showed this morning, along with any other records the department disclosed.

Other public records experts disagreed and said copies of the videos should now be made available to the general public.

“In my opinion, you’re entitled to a copy of the videos,” said Amitai Schwartz, an attorney who specializes in litigating California Public Records Act lawsuits.

According to Schwartz, OPD waived its ability to exempt the videos from disclosure when it screened them for select members of the news media. Schwartz said the department could willfully delay releasing the video by, for example, waiting the ten days allowed before making a determination under the Public Records Act, and then invoking various extensions that the law permits. But he said that the department can’t continue to claim the videos are evidence, and therefore refuse to provide copies to the public.

“Under the California Public Records Act, public records are available for inspection, and members of the public have the right to obtain copies of public records,” said Schwartz. “They’ve disclosed it. It was intentional disclosure. It wasn’t an accident.”

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