Modesto Police Body Camera Footage (short)
Without police body cameras, we would know much less about the violent death of unarmed Stephon Clark in Sacramento a little more than a year ago.
Without patrol car dashboard cameras, our understanding of the dreadful 2017 death of Modesto’s Evin Olsen Yadegar, also unarmed, in Ripon at the hands of a Stanislaus County deputy sheriff would be much more clouded.
More recently, the Feb. 9 killing of Willie McCoy by police drew little attention beyond Vallejo — until authorities last week released footage from body cameras worn by six officers at a Taco Bell drive-through as he apparently stirred from sleep with a loaded pistol on his lap.
Elements of each of these tragedies are disputed by viewers. Families of those killed say the footage validates police misconduct, while authorities use the footage to justify officers’ responses in tense moments. The courts are asked to help sort out who’s right and who’s wrong; in Yadegar’s case, a judge last month declined to let the Stanislaus deputy off the hook, ordering him to stand trial at a future date.
This much is certain: Each of these recordings, and thousands more each day across the United States, encourage us to talk about law enforcement, what officers do and how it affects us. That’s a good thing.
So we congratulate Stanislaus Sheriff Jeff Dirkse on the move. This week, as reported by The Modesto Bee’s John Holland, 180 deputies and 30 sergeants began wearing body cams and filming selected interactions with those they serve.
With that, police encounters in almost every corner of Stanislaus County can be recorded; the Sheriff’s Department patrols vast unincorporated areas and towns such as Salida, Empire and Keyes, and supplies police services under contract with the cities of Riverbank, Waterford, Hughson and Patterson. And police in Modesto, Ceres and Oakdale already were using body worn cameras, or BWCs, as they’re called in law enforcement.
Only tiny Newman and not-so-tiny Turlock don’t have them. Turlock police told Holland they’re looking for funding. That seems weak, as most agencies throughout the United States have gotten on board; it’s also surprising for a city whose mayor, Amy Bublak, is a former Modesto cop (she was elected in November), and for a City Hall that was run more than six years by Roy Wasden, Modesto’s former police chief.
It is true that a recent report from George Mason University in Virginia compiled 70 empirical studies and concluded that police body cams have not significantly affected officer behavior or citizen opinion of police. In fact, authorities in some cases are more likely to use footage not to hold themselves accountable, but as a prosecuting tool, the report found.
The report’s authors say body cameras alone won’t change police culture, but can serve as one important tool in a tool case of many reform measures leading to increased transparency and accountability. That’s an encouraging thought, if authorities are committed to building trust and better relations with regular people.
That’s not necessarily a given, even among those sporting body cams. Vallejo police, for instance, released the footage of McCoy’s death only after his family insisted, and four days after a media agency demanded to see it. Authorities here released footage of Yadegar’s death when San Joaquin County prosecutors decided to charge Stanislaus Deputy Justin Wall with voluntary manslaughter nearly a year and a half later. It changed many minds, clearly showing that Wall fired at Yadegar, who was bipolar and likely suffering a mental crisis, as her car moved forward — not as she backed toward officers as authorities initially said.
A new state law requires that law enforcement release police misconduct records, and some agencies have begun complying, including Modesto police. But Stanislaus sheriff policy says it won’t release body cam footage unless Dirkse decides it’s in the public’s best interest.
The sheriff is on the right track. But he should be careful, when faced with requests to come clean about future incidents, not to hide behind that policy.