Updated at 3:30 p.m. March 10, 2015

The San Diego Police Department is lashing a local journalist group after it named the law-enforcement agency a finalist for its inaugural [and ignoble] Wall Award.

Body cameras worn by San Diego police are at center of dispute with San Diego SPJ over transparency. Image via Fox 5 San Diego.

The award, in the form of a symbolic brick, will go to the public official or agency that made it hardest for journalists to do their jobs in 2014, “ignoring requests or otherwise compromising the public’s right to know.”

Launched by the San Diego chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, the Windows and Walls Awards are also meant to celebrate transparency. Windows finalists are the city of Del Mar, San Diego Councilman Mark Kersey and water authority spokesman Mike Lee.

But police spokesman Lt. Scott Wahl said the SDPD’s potential Wall Award is “misleading and in complete contradiction to what the award is intended for.”

Under Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman, the SDPD has reached out to aggrieved communities via public forums and other means. The agency “values community trust and transparency in policing,” Wahl said.

But local journalists who seek footage from the body-worn camera program have been stymied.

“The SDPD repeatedly told the public that getting police body cameras would increase public trust and add transparency,” the SPJ said last week in announcing three finalists for Windows and Walls Awards. “But instead, … Zimmerman has publicly said she won’t release most of the footage to the public and that if she did, it would be at her discretion.”

The journalist group said such a stand “doesn’t seem to jibe with the public records law and runs counter to what the public believes body cameras do: Provide a record of what happened. And law enforcement agencies elsewhere are releasing the footage upon request.”

Other finalists for Wall Awards are Gerry Braun, former spokesman and interim CEO of the defunct Balboa Park Centennial group, and District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis, who resisted releasing a letter that linked her to a campaign finance scandal.

Braun didn’t respond to Times of San Diego requests for comment, but a spokeswoman for Dumanis did March 10.

Responding to the question “How is [Dumanis’] office meeting media expectations for transparency and openness?” DA spokeswoman Tanya Sierra said via email:
 
“Balancing the integrity of a criminal prosecution, no matter the agency or their role, with the privacy rights of individuals and the public’s desire to know is a difficult task.  We always strive for transparency. Our job is to make decisions based on legal and ethical duties. We may not always agree.”

Wahl, as head of the police Media Relations Unit, defended SDPD policies.

Illustration used for Windows and Walls Awards program. Image via spjsandiego.org

In a 540-word email sent Feb. 27, Wahl argued that body-worn camera video is considered evidence.

“As with all evidence, it must be protected,” he said. “Releasing evidence could interfere with a defendant’s right to a fair and impartial trial. It could also contribute to the revictimization of a person(s) who has called us for assistance and often at their worst possible moment.”

Wahl added: “Sensationalizing their traumatic experience is not appropriate.”

In any case, he noted that “many external entities” may have an opportunity to view the video, such as the independent Citizens Review Board on Police Practices, citizens who have filed a formal complaint, and parties inside a courtroom.

“In addition, Chief Zimmerman has also stated she would likely release the video for public safety purposes,” Wahl wrote. “These are all examples of how and when the video may be viewed.”

He said the video policy was vetted by the ACLU and NAACP. Those groups, plus the Hispanic civil rights group La Raza, were present for a panel discussion in October. [See attached video.]

“There was nearly 95 percent agreement regarding our body-worn camera policy, which included not releasing video footage for the protection of individual privacy rights,” Wahl said.

Besides meetings and social media outreach, other efforts at transparency, he said, are the recurring “Inside the San Diego Police Department” program, where “citizens [have] a unique opportunity to walk in our shoes as a police officer.”

San Diego SPJ President Matt Hall of U-T San Diego during a KPBS appearance. Image via YouTube.com

U-T San Diego public engagement director Matt Hall, president of SPJ San Diego, said his group created the Windows and Walls Awards while brainstorming changes in its annual journalism contest “because a big part of the board’s mission is protecting the public’s right to know.”

The awards will be given March 19, amid the annual Sunshine Week, instead of during SPJ’s traditional summer banquet, he said, “because the awards deserve to stand on their own and we have honored people who fight for open government with our Sunshine Awards for years.”

He said nominations were sought via membership email blasts, the SPJ website and
social media, and the group “received numerous suggestions via an anonymous online submission process.”

Voice of San Diego’s Lisa Halverstadt, the SPJ secretary, suggested the idea of singling out government agencies because the Arizona Press Club, which she once served on, does something similar, Hall said.

“While one award is prettier than the other, we hope all of our finalists show up at the event to express their support for transparency and the public’s right to know,” he said. “Through this annual awards program, we hope that government agencies and the public better appreciate the importance of open government and the fight for transparency, which is the cornerstone of democracy.”

Hall held out an olive branch, encouraging Walls nominees to “take this in the spirit we intended: with a goal of improving our working relationships and public access going forward.”

Hall said SPJ hopes to “draw a crowd at Bamboo Lounge, 1475 University Ave., at 6 p.m. on March 19 and invite everyone to celebrate the best and commiserate about the worst in local journalism.”

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