Three months after the George Floyd protests, Mayor Sam Liccardo has begun escalating calls for the San Jose police to release body-cam footage of the demonstrations.
In an Aug. 21 memo, Liccardo asked that City Manager Dave Sykes hasten the release of videos generated by police during the late May-through-early-June protests before the next anticipated City Council hearing on the matter on Sept. 5.
The mayor recommended that police prioritize video of the following three incidents that already generated massive publicity because they were filmed at other angles by news reporters or bystanders with cellphones.
- When an officer pulled a man named David Baca behind a skirmish line (an ABC7 helicopter caught the overhead shot of the encounter; San Jose Inside photog Kyle Martin snapped still photos of it from on the ground just yards away)
- When a motorcycle cop struck a pedestrian (SJPD said the man on the receiving end of the collision was escaping after trying to rob a bank)
- When Officer Jared Yuen taunted and rushed at protesters
In the interest of context for each of those situations, the mayor asked that the city release at least 10-minute clips.
The council began asking for those videos back in June, but police have been dragging their feet. So far, the only footage SJPD disclosed in response to that request was a catalog of cellphone clips and news videos already in public circulation.
Frustrated by the delay, the council rehashed the issue at last week’s council meeting when police Chief Eddie Garcia explained that he’s withholding the bod-cam footage because of active internal investigations into the incidents and pending litigation.
Liccardo argued that withholding the clips makes little sense, given the volume of journalistic and civilian footage already out there. The only way to paint a more complete picture of the incidents that stoked such outrage, he added, is to release videos showing more context and new vantage points.
“You never see what happened before when these clips are on social media,” the mayor said during an Aug. 18 hearing on the matter. “You only see the worst of it, and as a result, the public gets the worst possible impression. They never get to see the whole picture until many months after the fact if it ever gets released and by that point, nobody cares anymore because the moment that’s relevant for transparency’s sake and for accountability is actually when the public is focused on the issue.”
In his memo requesting disclosure, Liccardo advised SJPD to only make exemptions to release provided under the California Public Records Act, which only allows withholding if the data would “substantially interfere” with an ongoing investigation or endanger witnesses or confidential informants.
The mayor this past week also suggested that the city create a new policy for releasing police footage of “of extraordinary public interest.”
Chief Garcia seemed cautious about the idea, saying his department would have “to look at it throughout the entire spectrum of force and whether there’s exposure to the city, whether [there are] criminal allegations against the officer or other things.”
“We’re working on finding a process to do that because I think we’re in a new age where we’re going to have to be more transparent with body cam footage,” he added.
Liccardo’s memo comes on the tails of a lawsuit filed by the Bay Area News Group—the parent company of the Mercury News—over the San Jose Police Department’s failure to release records under SB 1421 and AB 748.
The pair of laws passed in 2018 require police to release disciplinary records and data on incidents in which an officer’s use of force resulted in serious injury or death. City officials have estimated that it will take four years to release the 86 records responsive to requests filed to date by news agencies.
In the 18 months since the laws took effect, the city has only released complete records for six cases and partial records for 20 others, according to a tally by the Mercury News.
Elected leaders expressed frustration by the delays.
“I have repeatedly expressed my concerns internally about the slow pace of the production of these records,” Liccardo wrote this past week in the memo recommending video release. “As a former criminal prosecutor, I am very familiar with the task of providing police reports and tapes to defense counsel, and of long hours that I spent next to a photocopy machine with a redacting pen to release police case files in a timely manner—typically within a couple of weeks.”
While the mayor has no power under the city charter to direct department heads to release those records at a faster pace, he does have the power to put the pressure on San Jose’s public information office.
So, he did in what he called “an effort to break this inexplicable logjam.”
Liccardo’s memo will be discussed at Wednesday’s Rules and Open Government Committee. To view the full agenda for the meeting, click here.