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Court Says Recording Of Public Interaction Involving Police Officer Not A 'Confidential Personnel Record'


The city of Eureka, California loves its cops but hates it citizens. How else can you explain its two-year legal battle to keep police camera footage out of the public’s reach?

The North Coast Journal has been fighting with the city for the release of dash cam footage of an arrest of a 14-year-old that led to criminal excessive force charges. The city had argued that no footage was accessible via public records requests, an idea the appellate court found ridiculous.

So, for two years, it fought against transparency and accountability, funding its fight with taxpayers’ money while working in opposition of their interests. Now, taxpayers are on the hook for the paper’s legal fees as well. The backstory is this:

After criminal charges were dismissed, the Journal submitted a California Public Records Act request in August of 2014 asking for a copy of the video — a request the city denied, citing the discretionary exemptions for police investigative files and personnel records. In November of 2014, the Journal filed a petition in juvenile court under Welfare and Institutions Code 827, which carves out a process for members of the public to access juvenile court records, which are generally considered confidential.

In May of the following year, after reviewing the arrest video, [Superior Court Judge Christopher] Wilson granted the Journal’s request, finding the public interest in seeing the footage outweighed any privacy concerns and ordered the video released. The city then appealed, arguing that Wilson erred in his interpretation of the law and was allowing the Journal to circumvent state laws severely limiting access to confidential police officer personnel records — a series of statutes known collectively as Pitchess.

[Attorney Paul] Boylan countered that the video simply wasn’t the kind of record that would be protected by Pitchess, as it captured public employees carrying out their publicly entrusted duties on a public street and was not something generated by an internal affairs investigation or a disciplinary proceeding.

That was the city’s argument: that any footage captured by police cameras could be withheld under these public records law exemptions. It actually claimed that dash cam footage was a “confidential personnel record.” The court pointed out that all a camera does is capture footage of incidents and interactions. Even if used in disciplinary proceedings, the footage is not, in and of itself, a disciplinary record.

And yet the city continued to fight. It petitioned the state Supreme Court to depublish the lower court’s decision so it couldn’t be considered precedential. It wanted a standalone opinion that pertained to a single requested recording, not something that could be used to force it hand over more footage more often.

Maybe it’s not fair to say Eureka hates its residents. Maybe it just thinks its law enforcement officers are more deserving of its effort and spent funds. But nothing about its fight suggests it’s at all interested in either a better police force or a better relationship with the people paying for its opacity efforts. Government entities already have a plethora of exemptions available to keep info out of the hands of the public.

Claiming video of a public encounter involving a public servant is somehow a “confidential record” is completely asinine. Fortunately, the state Supreme Court has refused its petition, which will save taxpayers the expense of funding yet another attack on their own transparency interests.

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