Editorial: Progress made on Menlo Park police camera policy; more needed

Rule on when officers can turn off cameras must include more specific criteria

Menlo Park Police Department and city officials, with the help of an advisory committee of residents, are stepping up to the challenge inherent in the department's decision to require police officers to wear body cameras. Because the department is among the first law enforcement agencies in San Mateo County to adopt a body camera program, the city's challenge involves creating a responsible and effective protocol for the cameras' use that will factor in a number of tricky logistical and personal-rights considerations.

An hours-long discussion at the Jan. 27 City Council meeting that focused on changes proposed by the police department to existing policy demonstrated that each player in this effort takes the need for a sound protocol seriously -- and that they're determined to find reasonable compromises.

Councilman Ray Mueller asked for the council review after the Nov. 11 fatal shooting by Menlo Park police of a burglary suspect. Police officers had been equipped with the body-worn video cameras months before, but of the three officers involved in the shooting, only two were wearing cameras, and neither of them had the camera on during the shooting.

Police Chief Robert Jonsen has made several adjustments to the program already, but the council reviewed several policy changes his department is considering, as well as one it wasn't considering: retention time.

Mr. Mueller's concerns about the department's two-and-a-half-year minimum retention policy are reasonable, and well worth the discussion that will continue by the department and the advisory group before the issue comes back for council review later this month. We agree with Mr. Mueller that a compromise is possible "that satisfies both the department's desire to protect itself from liability, and preserve evidence for citizen complaints, while also protecting our residents' right to privacy by not having videotapes of their interactions with the police compiled in storage."

Equal in importance to that issue is the matter of when officers are required to turn on their cameras and when they are permitted to deactivate them. The department's proposed change to existing policy requires officers to "activate their recording devices while responding to any in-progress, serious or high-priority call for service to preclude arriving on scene and being unable to activate the unit." That inability to activate was probably at play on Nov. 11, when officers realized after arriving on the scene that a "suspicious person" call was in reality a dangerous situation involving a possibly armed man. This is a welcome policy change.

But the question of when officers are allowed to turn a camera off is problematic. Under the proposed policy change, officers "will have the discretion to keep recording devices off during conversations with confidential informants." Good arguments can be made for such a policy, but we believe that such a provision is only the starting point. There must also be clear definitions and criteria included in a protocol that allows discretionary action or else, as Councilwoman Kirsten Keith said in an email to the Almanac, "the policy is meaningless."

Ms. Keith summed it up concisely: "Confidential informant" must be defined, "otherwise the discretion is too great." And, if there are other discretionary reasons to turn off the camera, she added, those reasons "must be clearly stated."

Chief Jonsen, who appears to be making every effort to work with council members and to elucidate the logic behind his department's proposed policies, acknowledged that the term "confidential informant" is confusing, and said the language will be clarified. We strongly recommend that the policy on deactivating a camera be amplified with criteria that creates a reasonable framework within which officers can exercise their discretion.

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