Sonoma County DA eases disputed body cam policy

PAUL PAYNE

Ravitch said the goal was to protect victims and witnesses whose identities or personal information might disclosed on the tapes.

But amid criticism that the requirement infringed on First Amendment and due process rights, Ravitch scrapped her initial seven-point policy, replacing it with a one-paragraph agreement added to an existing form.

Now, she requires both defense lawyers and prosecutors to give 15 days written notice before disseminating body cam videos to news outlets or before posting them on a website or social media. During that time, either side may object and seek a protective order from a judge blocking the video’s publication.

The new, scaled-back approach was hammered out with input from the Public Defender’s Office and members of the private defense bar who met last week. Previous restrictions on using the videos in other cases or keeping copies beyond 90 days have been deleted.

Public Defender Kathleen Pozzi said Thursday it was a fair compromise that satisfies her clients’ concerns while giving prosecutors an opportunity to protect third parties.

“I think it’s a very good resolution,” Pozzi said. “It works for everyone.”

But some private attorneys continued to object, saying the policy is an attempt at censorship.

Sebastopol defense lawyer Omar Figueroa said he is not willing to limit his right to immediately post a video that may show police misconduct or other acts of public interest. Besides, he said he is already barred by law from posting confidential information about witnesses and victims.

“Why is Jill Ravitch trying to filter the dissemination of information to the media?” Figueroa wrote in an email Thursday. “If the video is not newsworthy, the media is not going to be interested and there’s nothing to worry about. If the video is newsworthy, requiring the approval of a censor/prosecutor is the hallmark of a police state.”

Another defense attorney, Izaak Schwaiger of Santa Rosa, who is suing the county in several excessive force cases, said the new policy is a step in the right direction. But he said it is a “far cry” from embracing transparency and accountability.

“It’s like somebody came up to you with a gun and said ‘give me $100,’ ” the former Sonoma County prosecutor said. “And you said ‘no.’ Then he said, ‘OK, just give me $60.’ ”Jerry Threet, director of the county’s new Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Outreach, said he favored “as much transparency as can be allowed” around the disclosure of body cam videos. He expressed concern the initial policy might restrict third parties who obtained video from the Sheriff’s Office through a Public Records Act request.But he said rules pertaining to the use of evidence in a legal proceeding are appropriate.

“It’s really a fight between the criminal defense bar and the prosecution,” Threet said.

Ravitch did not return a phone call to her office Thursday. On Wednesday, she told the editorial board of The Press Democrat that law enforcement agencies should make any decisions about whether to release footage shot by their officers. The videos are not the property of the District Attorney’s Office, she said.

She said her policy was, in part, a reaction to the difficulty of screening the large volume of body cam videos her office receives. Redacting private information from such videos is currently impractical, given staffing levels in her office, she said. Rather than risking the exposure of a victim or witness, she sought a “pre-emptive strike given the kind of material we’re coming upon.”

“Sonoma County gets credit for being in front of this,” Ravitch told the board. “But when you get in front of it sometimes you don’t think of all the implications.”

She admitted not consulting private attorneys before the policy’s first iteration. But she said two bar members were involved in making recent changes.“We’re not trying to be unreasonable,” Ravitch said. “We’re trying to resolve these cases.”

You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 707-568-5312 or paul.payne@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ppayne.