Sonoma County body-camera programs: transparent or opaque?

The video of a September encounter between three deputies and a Boyes Hot Springs couple was so troubling, one of the deputies was out of a job within a week after Sonoma County sheriff’s officials watched it.

The deputy was shown forcing open a bedroom door and roughly handling a man who refused to get out of bed, according to the Sheriff’s Office, grabbing, pulling, hitting with a baton, shocking with a stun gun and otherwise handling him in a manner prosecutors said rose to the level of felony assault.

The actions of the former deputy, Scott Thorne, may not have been scrutinized had the deputies not been wearing body cameras, which the Sheriff’s Office began issuing to its 250-member force of uniformed patrol deputies, detectives and sergeants more than 18 months ago.

 But the public has not seen the video from the Sept. 24 incident, and it’s not clear if they ever will.

Elected officials agreed to buy these cameras at great expense with a promise of transparency and accountability. Some program proponents have said allowing the public to see footage, particularly in potential excessive force cases, is an important element of body-cam programs.

Sheriff’s officials have described in detail what they saw on the video but declined The Press Democrat’s request for a copy, citing the criminal investigation. The office also refused to give copies to the man’s attorney.

Sonoma County Sheriff’s Sgt. Spencer Crum, spokesman for Sheriff Steve Freitas, said the cameras are tools that clearly showed a problem the Sheriff’s Office was swift to address.

“We absolutely believe this provides transparency,” Crum said. “We initiated the criminal investigation so the BWCs (body-worn cameras) are doing their jobs.”

Jerry Threet, director of the Sonoma County Office of Independent Law Enforcement Review and Outreach, called the sheriff’s response to the Boyes Hot Springs case “exemplary” and said “all of that should give us some confidence in the system.”

Threet said the Sheriff’s Office is legally within its right to withhold the video’s release because it is part of a criminal investigation but said the law also doesn’t bar the department from releasing video from an ongoing investigation.

“The question really is when to turn it over, and that’s really a debate that’s ripe to be had,” Threet said. “I think there’s room for greater transparency in this area.”

Spurred by advances in technology and high-profile police shootings, calls for law enforcement officers to wear body cameras have led to widespread adoption of the tool.

Most agencies in Sonoma County have body cameras, and its cities and the county have committed the money toward them. The Santa Rosa City Council agreed to spend up to $536,488 for cameras for 120 of its patrol officers. Sonoma County supervisors approved $1.2 million to outfit sheriff’s deputies with 250 cameras.

In November, the Sonoma County Law Enforcement Chiefs Association met and approved a countywide protocol for the public release of body cam recordings. Representatives from the county’s seven police departments, the Sheriff’s Office and District Attorney’s Office agreed to not publicly release videos in most cases unless it would “(aid) in an investigation, assist in the arrest or apprehension of a suspect, warn the public of danger or increase public safety.” The protocol is just a guideline and not binding.

Santa Rosa Police Chief Hank Schreeder agreed the policy takes a conservative approach to public disclosure, meant to balance the integrity of investigations, privacy concerns and the public’s interest in viewing recordings. Santa Rosa’s independent police auditor, Bob Aaronson, has access to all officer body cam footage and has reviewed most reported use-of-force incidents, the chief said.

Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch tried to prevent criminal defense attorneys from releasing body and dash camera recordings to the public by requiring they sign agreements before receiving the tapes. Ravitch said the move was to ensure the integrity of the legal process and protect the privacy of people on the recordings.

But defense attorneys and First Amendment activists assailed the move, and Ravitch eventually revised the policy that slows but doesn’t necessarily stop public disclosure. Defense lawyers receive the videos after signing an agreement to give 15 days written notice before disseminating body-cam videos to news outlets or posting the videos online. They can sign it and get the recordings, or seek a court order from a judge.

Sebastopol defense attorney Omar Figueroa said the policies show agencies view the cameras as tools to exonerate officers.

“I see a huge need for transparency in the Sonoma County criminal justice system,” Figueroa said. “They are public servants working on behalf of the public and they’re getting paid tax dollars. We have a right to see it. If the defendant takes a deal, it won’t go to trial and you won’t get to see the video.”

The Boyes Hot Springs man injured in the September incident is represented by Santa Rosa attorney Izaak Schwaiger, who has brought a number of excessive force lawsuits against the county. The sheriff’s reluctance to release the video to his client raises questions about whether disclosure decisions are being made with political interests in mind, Schwaiger said.

“When the person whose privacy interests are implicated is the one requesting it, then what stops you from giving them that video?” Schwaiger said. “There’s no legitimate reason to deny that request to my client.”

Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Coursey said the council, to his knowledge, wasn’t informed about the Police Department’s new policy with the chief’s association on public disclosure. Coursey said he’s aware there are instances when the law may prevent a video’s release but said he’d want the council to discuss public disclosure guidelines before approving further spending body cams.

Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane said she’s concerned with the privacy of victims and is confident Freitas has taken that into account. The board approves the Sheriff’s Office budget but doesn’t have authority over how the department is run.

She said she has confidence in the county’s body-cam program, which may expand to include correctional deputies. She believes the disclosure policy was created to balance at times conflicting concerns.

“How that information is communicated to the public is very important and it’s very sensitive, it’s sensitive information,” Zane said.

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