Thankfully, US District Court Judge Stephen Wilson just issued a ruling that very much helps the cause of transparency. He ordered the release of a video showing City of Gardena officers fatally shooting an unarmed man in 2013. The shooting was the subject of a civil rights lawsuit and Gardena settled with the family for $4.7 million dollars. The unjustifiable police shooting was captured on a dashcam video but the public was never able to see it until Judge Wilson's recent ruling. Apparently, the settlement was partly motivated by Gardena's desire to keep the video hidden for all time.
Judge Wilson recognized that tax dollars paid for Gardena's settlement and citizen taxpayers have a legitimate interest in seeing the video.
Judge Wilson's ruling is spot on. Of course citizens should have the right to monitor the actions of police officers they pay for and that allegedly are serving and protecting them. Police officers are given guns and the authority to use them to kill people under very limited circumstances; those officers can expect that people who may find themselves on the wrong end of one of those guns want to see how they are being used.
The legal war over the Gardena video has been going on for years, and is still going on via an appeal to the Ninth Circuit. A similar legal war is being waged in the state court system over the investigative file related to the 2012 police shooting of Kendrec McDade by Pasadena police officers.
What happened with the Gardena police shooting video and Kendrec McDade investigative report is all too common. When a police agency or officer is taken to task for an improper police shooting, the agency goes into immediate damage control mode and tells everyone (the victim's family, media, community activists, concerned citizens, and civil rights lawyers suing on behalf of the victim's family) that everything is secret and privileged under California and common law.
Lawyers end up fighting over access to concealed information -- including any videos of the incident, audiotaped statements of the personnel involved, investigative reports, and inquiries into the backgrounds of the involved officers. Sometimes the fight ends up in court and a judge has to make a ruling as to what needs to be turned over. Often times the information ends up being revealed but is placed under seal and only available to lawyers. To make the information public beyond the courtroom requires more legal wrangling as we see in the case of the Gardena police shooting video and McDade investigative file.
Judge Wilson made a good call. Hopefully more judges, legislators and police administrators will follow suit -- and make rulings, statutory changes and policies that mandate transparency and the accountability that follows.