Last May, the city of Hayward charged a legal association about $3,200 for police body camera footage of the December 2014 Black Lives Matter protests in Berkeley.
Now, an Alameda County judge has directed Hayward to refund all but $1 of the payment, ruling June 24 that the money the city spent redacting parts of the video should not be included in the charge.
“(Records) should be available to the public and at a price that the public can afford. That leads to more transparency, more police accountability,” said Amitai Schwartz, a lawyer who represented the National Lawyers Guild, or NLG’s, case.
Body-worn cameras were locally introduced in Hayward almost two years ago to increase police accountability. Hayward officers were providing mutual aid to Berkeley as well as other departments in the East Bay during Black Lives Matter protests.
On Jan. 27, 2015, the NLG filed a California Public Records Act request of footage from Hayward police officers who participated in crowd control during demonstrations. The guild’s request for footage came amid several cases of litigation alleging excessive use of force by police — who employed tear gas and rubber bullets — during the protests.
A Hayward employee spent a total of 170 hours editing and redacting exempt portions of the video recorded by the body-worn cameras, according to court documents. The $3246.47 charge was for staff time, while $1 was charged for the DVD itself.
The Public Records Act “exempts” certain types of information from disclosure, such as information that would violate someone else’s privacy or reveal investigative records.
“The city overreached,” Schwartz said. “They got a little greedy on the money — they sent this exorbitant bill. … No individual unless they were Donald Trump could really afford that.”
Government agencies can only charge for the cost of duplicating records when they receive public records act requests. To create electronic records, however, agencies can also charge for expenses incurred for data compilation, extraction or programming.
Hayward argued that the time spent redacting certain video and audio parts was a form of “extraction.” Alameda County Judge Evelio Grillo found in his ruling that the video editing process was not a reasonable interpretation of extraction.
The clips of body camera footage the NLG paid to acquire depict police officers using expletives and calling the protestors “animals.” The NLG, however, has only been able to acquire a small portion of the Black Lives Matter footage.
Berkeley’s Police Review Commission has been working for several months on creating a policy toward body-worn cameras after City Council approved its acquisition more than a year ago. Several council members hope that such technology may help prosecute criminals and reduce negative behaviors among officers.
Bay Area Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild executive board member Rachel Lederman said the case is an example of the limitations of police body-worn cameras, which are touted as a tool to promote police accountability and transparency.
“Body cameras are no panacea for police accountability,” Lederman said.