Changes to the Menlo Park Police Department's policy on how officers use body-worn cameras are not quite ready for prime time, after an extended discussion during a recent council meeting.
The changes were proposed by the Menlo Park Police Department after the fatal shooting of a burglary suspect by three Menlo Park police officers was not captured by a police body camera. The proposed changes are:
■ 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.
During the Jan. 27 meeting, the council was mostly on board with the changes, although Councilwoman Kirsten Keith suggested not leaving it up to the officer's discretion as to when to turn off the cameras.
Police Chief Bob Jonsen expressed concern that that would restrict the officers' ability to do their jobs.
Ms. Keith later told the Almanac the policy must be clear about the definition of "confidential informant" as well as what other discretionary reasons might exist to justify turning off the cameras, "or else the policy is meaningless." It's understandable that some crime victims may not want to be recorded, she said, but the policy needs to state that.
She also expressed her appreciation for the police department as early adopters of new technology, and acknowledged "their excellent police work and dedication to serving the residents of Menlo Park. They do a great job protecting our residents and crime is down."
Chief Jonsen acknowledged that the term "confidential informant" might be confusing, and said the department would modify the language. The intent is to indicate that crime victims should be asked to consent to being recorded, and that officers should exercise discretion as to whether the value of potential information outweighs the merits of leaving the camera on when talking to someone reluctant to be recorded.
Councilman Ray Mueller, who had asked that the council review the camera policy, said he felt comfortable overall with the changes following the Jan. 27 discussion. However, he still wondered whether requiring officers to remember to turn the cameras on while on the way to a call was the best idea.
"It seems to me to be a distraction from their mission. I am not certain I want officers to have to weigh a camera policy at that moment. If the cameras are already on, it reduces the chances for error and also allows the officer to focus on their mission," he said in an email to the Almanac.
Apart from certain specific situations, for example during meal breaks or time spent doing paperwork, Mr. Mueller said he wanted the default state of the camera to be on.
Another sticking point remained up for debate -- in this case, something that wasn't proposed to be changed: The two-and-a-half year minimum retention time for all videos.
Mr. Mueller said retention was "still an outstanding issue to be resolved."
Cmdr. Dave Bertini said the police department had based the retention time on the statute of limitations for filing a lawsuit over civil rights violations -- two years in federal court and one year in state court.
Part of the difficulty is that at the time of an encounter, there may not be any indication that "it will rise to the level of a complaint," City Attorney Bill McClure noted during the discussion.
According to a Department of Justice survey of 254 law enforcement agencies, the average retention time for body camera video was 60 to 90 days. The American Civil Liberties Union recommends "weeks rather than years."
The police chief's citizens advisory group will talk about retention at an upcoming meeting and provide a report to the council, which expects to revisit the issue in February.
Mr. Mueller said that he believes it's possible to find a compromise between the department's need to safeguard against liability and preserve evidence with a resident's right to privacy.
"I want to make it clear I really appreciate the work of our police department and I just want the officers who were involved in the November 11th incident to know we care about them, are grateful for their work, and we're relieved they weren't harmed that day," he added. "This policy review is being undertaken to fix a policy, and it isn't in anyway directed against them personally."