Oakland Tribune crime reporter David DeBolt still remembers when his paper got the call from the Oakland Police Department. They wanted local reporters like him to come to police headquarters to watch police body camera footage of two recent officer-involved shootings.
“It sort of set a precedent. There hasn’t been a department in the Bay Area that’s released body camera footage. I mean, these devices are rather new,” DeBolt says.
Oakland police have had body cameras since 2010, but the agency still hasn’t worked out a policy for what to show the public. The reason they called DeBolt in this time was that they had misinformation to correct. There were rumors that Nate Wilks, who had been shot and killed by police, was shot in the back.
Police said that wasn’t true. Then there was the case of Richard Linyard, who died while wedged between two buildings.
“There were questions about force, about whether police had done anything that caused his death,” DeBolt explains.
Police eventually released these videos to the public, but at the time, they were still private. So DeBolt gathered with about 10 other local reporters in the Oakland Police Department headquarters to watch the videos.
The death of Nate Wilks
DeBolt remembers that the first video showed Nate Wilks, running, and the police officers yelling, “Drop the gun, drop the gun.” It’s a hazy, chaotic scene.
“If you can imagine holding a camera on your shoulder and running, it's very choppy footage,” says DeBolt. “The camera kind of bobbed up and down and up and down, and these three officers were running. It was a foot chase.”
So that the reporters could get a clearer view, the police lieutenant slowed down the crucial moment: the moment where the officers shot Wilks. Then he stopped the video and zoomed in on the image of Wilks holding something.
“I have not held it in my hand and examined it, but it appears to be a gun,” DeBolt says.
The death of Richard Linyard
Then, DeBolt says, they moved on to footage of Richard Linyard. In the footage, he’s on the run. He hops a fence, and then he’s gone.
“They stop the chase, and they start the search,” DeBolt remembers.
Then the camera stops rolling for about 20 minutes. When the camera comes back on, it shows police performing CPR on Linyard’s lifeless body. Some, including Linyard’s mother, still believe he was murdered by police during those 20 missing minutes. DeBolt says he couldn’t determine that.
“It’s not my job to determine if a shooting is justified or not,” he says. “I just lay out the facts.”
Beyond these two cases, there’s the bigger question of why these two videos are the only ones police have released. Oakland Police Chief Sean Whent says he doesn’t want to release footage that can jeopardize an investigation, but he wants to keep the public safe.
“I have a desire to prevent a riot from occurring,” he says. “If correcting misinformation does help in that regard, then we have to consider it. I don’t believe we’ve worked this out entirely. I don’t believe across the state there’s any kind of uniformity at all.”
Whent says the biggest impact of the cameras has been how officers and citizens react, just knowing they’re being watched. The cameras, resting on the officers’ shoulders, are neon green, and they glow. Over the last four years, the department has seen a 70% reduction of use of force.
“I wouldn’t credit it all to the body-worn camera, but I think the body camera has a civilizing effect on both ends,” says Whent. “I think the officers behave better, and the people they’re dealing with behave better.”
“I can’t breathe”
But when something does go wrong, Oakland’s body cameras don’t always tell the whole story. Take, for example, the footage released earlier this year that showed the officer-involved death of Hernan Jaramillo outside his East Oakland home. In the video, Jaramillo is on the sidewalk outside his house. Officers are holding him to the ground and telling him to calm down. In the video, you can hear him plead for his sister, Ana Biocini, to help, while officers reassure him he’s not in danger.
Biocini remembers that night. She says she heard loud sounds from her brother’s room, so she called the cops. They mistook Jaramillo for an intruder. Officers say he resisted when they tried to detain him. But Biocini and her family say the cops should have called for medical help sooner.
“The video is life,” Biocini says. “It tells exactly what happened. It shows you the truth about that night.”
Grey shadows and a lack of certainty
That footage wasn’t released to the public until Biocini and her family settled a wrongful-death lawsuit for $450,000. After her family in Colombia saw the footage, they decided to reverse the settlement. Now they think they’ve got a shot in court. To them, the proof is in her brother’s screams for help. But that’s also part of the trouble; the screams might be loud and clear, but the images, Biocini admits, are dark and blurry.
“In the video you cannot see very much,” Biocini says. “You can see dark shadows, grey shadows.”
John Burris is Biocini’s attorney. He says the footage alone isn’t enough to prove the officers’ actions caused her brother’s death. The city claims Jaramillo died as a result of cocaine in his system, and the video footage doesn’t rule this possibility out. Burris’s view is that the officers prevented Jaramillo from breathing, and the footage doesn’t rule that out either.
“At the end of the day, you have to fill it in,” Burris says.
Still, he says that without the footage, people would have to rely mostly on the police officer’s version of events. Body cameras are like an extra witness.
“The police have a tremendous media machine that is designed to present the police in a positive light at all times, regardless of what they’ve done,” says Burris. “The video camera is one mechanism to undercut that.”
The media machine and the code of silence
Officer Albie Esparza works for what Burris calls the media machine. He’s the San Francisco Police Department’s Public Information Officer, and he knows firsthand how body cameras, and cell phone footage, have changed policing in San Francisco and nationwide.
“In the past, people thought there was a thin, blue code of silence,” Esparza says. “That doesn’t exist anymore.”
The most recent shooting to come to light is the death of Mario Woods, who was shot by police in San Francisco's Bayview neighborhood last year.
Since then, there’s been widespread protest, as well as investigations from the U.S. Department of Justice. But recently the San Francisco city attorney ruled that the police who shot and killed Mario Woods acted lawfully to protect themselves and bystanders from a man who was armed with a knife. Esparza says he understands how that could make people angry.
“No one wants to see someone shot and killed, regardless of the circumstances,” Esparza says. “It’s an upsetting video.”
Since the shooting, activists have called for the resignation of San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr.
Transparency vs. privacy
The lingering question of what images the public should and shouldn’t see is one of the reasons it’s taken the San Francisco Police Department so long to come up with a body camera policy.
“Police officers conduct investigations, sexual assault investigations, domestic violence situations. We go into people's homes,” Esparza says. “We have to ask ourselves, ‘What's our policy, what do we release, what can we release?’”
In December, the San Francisco Police Commission voted to restrict officers from seeing footage after a critical incident, like an officer-involved shooting. Police watchdogs are worried that if officers see the footage, their memories will be tainted, or they’ll change their version of events. Officers are worried that without watching the footage, they’ll get the story wrong.
“If officers were not allowed to view what they experienced in the incident, they’re basically writing a report blind, if you will, just by memory,” Esparza says. “Sometimes you might leave out critical information or critical details.”
And, Esparza says, that could put officers in a position of appearing dishonest when their memory fails them, or their vision proves inadequate compared to the view of a body camera. That’s not the impact Esparza wants.
The future of body cameras
“As technology gets more advanced, I can see smaller cameras on officers that capture everything. With more officers on the scene it would capture different angles,” Esparza says. “Hopefully it does answer lots of questions and does provide community with some kind of increased confidence in their police department.”
Last month, San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr announced that he plans to have all his patrol officers equipped with body cameras by the end of the year.