After the fatal shooting of a burglary suspect by three Menlo Park officers in November went unrecorded by their body-worn cameras, the police department has presented the council with suggested changes to its camera policy.
If the changes are implemented:
■ Officers would be expected to turn on the cameras while responding to the scene of a crime in progress or a high-priority call, unless they are unable to do so, as well as at the start of any citizen contact.
■ They would also need to document the existence of a recording of the encounter, and if the camera had not been activated, state why not in the report.
■ The camera would stay on continuously until the officer is no longer directly involved in an incident or contact.
■ Officers would have the discretion to not record conversations with confidential informants.
One area the revisions don't revisit is how long the videos should be kept. A Department of Justice survey found an average 60- to 90-day retention time across 254 departments. Menlo Park's policy requires that even non-evidentiary videos be kept for two and a half years. Atherton stores recordings for two years.
Menlo Park's police department based its retention time on the statute of limitations for filing a lawsuit over civil rights violations -- two years in federal court; one year in state court.
Cmdr. Dave Bertini said that the police department, along with the city attorney, strongly recommends that the entire policy, including the retention period, be left unchanged aside from the proposed revisions.
The staff report on the proposed revisions references a 2013 American Civil Liberties Union analysis of best practices for body-worn cameras. The ACLU, however, recommended that "retention periods should be measured in weeks not years, and video should be deleted after that period unless a recording has been flagged."
Videos would be "flagged" for any incident that results in a detention or an arrest, involves use of force, or leads to a complaint. Those recorded, or police department supervisors, could ask that the footage be flagged, based on the ACLU's recommendations.
Not far enough?
Councilman Ray Mueller, who asked the council to review how the police department uses the cameras, said he appreciates the attempt to fix the policy's deficiencies.
"However, I am concerned the proposed changes in the policy still don't go far enough, as the proposed policy requires the officer to make a decision as to what circumstances require turning their camera on," he said.
Instead, he suggested a policy that has the camera always recording except during meal breaks, meetings with confidential informants, and time spent on paperwork. "I believe this subtle change will eliminate the possibility that relevant events may not be recorded."
He found the statute of limitations rationale for the two-and-a-half-year retention period less than compelling under all circumstances.
"I believe the statute of limitations is a reasonable guideline for serious events, or events under investigation," he said. "However, to non-serious events, I believe a balancing test, taking into account the public's right to privacy, creates a strong argument to lessen the period of retention."
In addition, he said, the policy should address privacy issues, such as under what specific circumstances the digital data may be shared with outside parties.
Mr. Mueller said he wants the council to form a policy subcommittee, and to have the police chief's citizens advisory group weigh in. Steve Taffee, a member of the advisory group as well as the ACLU and Electronic Frontier Foundation, has agreed to write a summary of the group's discussion.
The Menlo Park Police Department bought 40 VIEVU cameras, at about $1,000 each, in late 2013. The department's protocol, which was developed with input from its citizens advisory group, states that all on-duty contact with citizens shall be recorded.
The community expected that the officers' cameras would have recorded the shooting on Nov. 11. But only two of the three officers were wearing the devices. Of those two, only one turned the camera on, and that occurred right after the shooting, according to the District Attorney's Office and Police Chief Bob Jonsen.
The third officer involved did not have a camera because it had been turned in for repairs.
The police department has made equipment changes since the shooting. A grant of $20,000 from the state will pay for new versions of the VIEVU camera. The upgraded cameras can record up to five hours, instead of three, on a single battery charge; hold 16 GB of memory instead of 4 GB; and have the option to record in high definition.
The department also ordered 10 extra cameras to keep on hand as backup units.
Tonight's regular council meeting starts at 7 p.m. in the council chambers at the Civic Center at 701 Laurel St. following a closed session. It will be streamed live online.