The issue here is not the killing of Diaz Zeferino. We can go round and round all day (and tiresomely, we probably will) disputing the righteousness of this police shooting two years ago in Gardena, a neighboring city south of Los Angeles. The issue is one of convenient police secrecy and surreptitiousness.
In the two years since Gardena police officers fatally shot an unarmed man, city officials fought to keep graphic video of the killing under wraps.
The grainy videos, captured by cameras mounted in two patrol cars, show three men mistakenly suspected of stealing a bicycle standing in a street under the glare of police lights. With their weapons trained on them, officers scream at the men to keep their hands up.
While two of the men remain motionless, Ricardo Diaz Zeferino appears confused by the officers’ instructions. He drops and raises his arms repeatedly, showing the officers his hands and stepping backward and then forward a few paces. A laser dot from an officers’ pistol can be seen on his shirt. After Diaz Zeferino removes a baseball cap from his head, officers standing to the side of the men unleash a volley of gunfire.
Gardena’s attempts to prevent the public from viewing the shooting met with defeat Tuesday, when a federal judge ordered the release of the recordings.
In unsealing the videos, U.S. District Judge Stephen V. Wilson said the public had an interest in seeing the recordings, especially after the city settled a lawsuit over the shooting for $4.7 million. Wilson rejected last ditch efforts by Gardena attorneys, who argued the city had paid the settlement money in the belief that the videos would remain under seal.
Wilson’s decision comes as law enforcement agencies nationwide increasingly have embraced the use of cameras worn by officers and placed in patrol cars to record police interactions with civilians. But few agencies have made their videos public, spurring a debate over the need to balance the privacy of those captured on the recordings and transparency in policing.
After settling the lawsuit, Diaz Zeferino’s family and the other men supported the request of The Times and other media groups, saying the videos should be released. Gardena contended that releasing the video would deter police from using such cameras and would endanger the safety of the officers at a time of heightened public criticism of police killings.
The fact that the media groups needed an order from a federal judge to get access to the videos underscores the limited scope of California’s laws on public records, said Peter Scheer, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition. The city had previously rejected The Times’ request for the video.
Under the state’s open records laws, Scheer said, Gardena police officials were well within their rights to keep the video footage secret.
“The takeaway from this should be that California laws protecting police information and evidence are way too restrictive and make it too difficult to know what is going on,” Scheer said.
All official, mechanized police videos must be considered public domain. The cameras are there to both protect and assist police work. They are not installed to create a private library of damning evidence that can be purged from the public record when they are less than flattering to the police narrative. If police misconduct occurs, there must not exist the legal recourse to subdue all evidence and rewrite the tragic public contact.
If a cop acted out of bounds we should get to see it.
Gardena PD’s pathetic contention that “releasing the video would deter police from using such cameras and would endanger the safety of the officers at a time of heightened public criticism of police killings” is an utter lie. It reminds me of the standard law and order response to people who criticize police stings: “if you have nothing to hide, you shouldn’t be afraid.”
Yes, this is inarguable, and it applies to police as well. Or should.