Harry Harris, 10/3/11
An Oakland police video of an officer-involved shooting has become the subject of a debate as to who should be allowed to view the film and when.
An Oakland police officer was wearing a video camera clip on his uniform when he fatally shot an armed man during a struggle last month, but officials won’t say exactly what the video shows because the case remains under investigation. Even though department policy says that officers can review their video, neither the officers involved in the shooting nor their attorney were allowed to view the video before giving statements to investigators.
The lawyer has since been allowed to view the video, but it is not clear if the officers have.
“We will continue to work with the department concerning the interpretation and application of the video policy,” said attorney Rocky Lucia, representing the Oakland Police Officers Association. “I don’t want a debate about administrative policy to trump the fact that this officer put his life on the line.”
It is still not clear when or if the video — or a portion of it — will be made public. Police said the video is subject to a Public Records Act request.
It is thought to be the first time a California police officer was wearing a video camera in a deadly confrontation with a suspect. Other police shootings, including that of Oscar Grant III by former BART police Officer Johannes Mehserle, have been captured on tape by bystanders or other surveillance cameras.
When it was announced that Oakland officers would be using the cameras, which include audio, the department said the devices would “streamline the truth-finding process by providing the best evidence” in crimes or attacks against officers and hopefully “provide an additional layer of accountability and trust between the police and the public.”
Civil rights attorney John Burris said Monday that he has not been contacted by the family of the man killed. He said that not releasing the video in a timely manner and letting the officers and their attorney view it before providing statements hurts police credibility.
“Emotions are high” in an officer-involved shooting, especially a fatal one, he said.
The family and the public “should have access sooner than later,” according to Burris. If there is early access, “it can (cause) unrest. When people don’t know, it can cause uncertainty and you expect the worse. The longer you wait, it arouses suspicions about the tape itself and the maintenance of the tape.”
Allowing officers to see the video before giving statements, he said, “is not good police work as far as I’m concerned. It undermines the integrity of the process. An important component here is the credibility of all parties present. If other independent witnesses cannot see the tape, then the officers should not either.”
Those familiar with photography said depending on the size of the camera lens, the closeness and movements of the man and the officer during the struggle, the tape might not provide a clear showing of the actual shooting.
Video cameras have been worn by more than 300 patrol officers since March. The cameras, manufactured by Vievu of Seattle, are about the size of a small cellphone and have a field of view of 71 degrees, or about a person’s normal sightline. They cost the city a total of $540,000.
Officer Johnna Watson, a department spokeswoman, would only confirm the officer’s video camera was operating when the confrontation occurred. Because the case is under investigation, she said she would not comment on what the video shows.
She said the department has a policy about how the cameras are to be used. However, there is no policy about who outside the department can view the video.
Watson did say that “just because this was captured on (video) doesn’t mean it’s the entire picture” of what happened. “It’s just one piece. I think it’s important to keep in mind that this is a tool and there are other factors to consider, like the officers’ training and what is processing through their mind.”
The shooting happened about 5 p.m. Wednesday. Two officers stopped a car containing two men in the 1800 block of 99th Avenue. The passenger, a 34-year-old Union City man with ties to Oakland whose name has still not been released, ran from the vehicle.
As the officers chased the man, he threw away what turned out to be packaged heroin, police said.
The foot chase ended in the 9900 block of Cherry Street, where one of the officers with the clip-on video camera got into a struggle with the man. Investigators, who did not say at the time that the officer’s camera was operating, have only said that the officer shot the man when he saw he had a gun.
A loaded gun was recovered at the scene. The other man fled in the car.