Sunday , March 19, 2017 - 5:00 AM2 comments
You don’t see many graphic images published in the pages of this newspaper. Nor do you typically find them on our website.
But we chose to publish surveillance footage of a shooting death Friday for a single, compelling reason — it documents what happened the night of Tuesday, Feb. 21, when two Ogden police officers encountered Bartolo Justice Sambrano in a downtown parking garage.
As the video documents, they had no choice. Sambrano pointed a gun at them; they shot him out of self-defense.
It is our role as a newspaper to hold city, county and state governments accountable for their actions. That includes their police departments.
We requested body cam, dash cam and surveillance videos from the Feb. 21 encounter between Ogden police officers and Sambrano, as state law allows.
Ogden provided body cam footage from the two officers who pursued Sambrano, as well as parking lot surveillance video. But it did not supply body or dash cam video from the officer who saw Sambrano casing cars in the garage and ordered him to stop, thus initiating the event.
The city redacted the footage, obscuring faces and most of the audio.
We reviewed the video and decided only to publish the garage surveillance footage. Because even though it shows Sambrano’s death, it’s far less graphic than the video from the police officers’ body cams.
Police said Sambrano ran from them in the parking garage. When he stopped and pointed a gun at them, they opened fire, killing him.
The surveillance video confirms their story. That’s why police wear body cams and why footage of police shootings is public record — so there’s no question about what happens in a violent encounter.
But the videos provided by the city still don’t go far enough.
Uah code says police body cam footage is an open record. It can only be withheld if it’s recorded on private property, and even in that case, it makes an exception if an officer fires a weapon, if the video records a crime, or if the encounter results in someone’s death or injury.
Sambrano’s death qualifies on at least two of those three counts. No matter how you look at it, state law says video of his shooting is a public record.
What records you can and cannot see is not up to the city; it is established by state law.
And there’s another problem.
State law says officers must activate their body cams when they initiate an encounter. Mara A. Brown, the city’s chief deputy attorney, says no such video exists from Feb. 21.
“No dash-camera footage from the officers in the shooting exists, nor body-camera footage or dash-camera footage from the initial contact between officers and the suspect,” Brown said in a letter to the Standard-Examiner.
The question becomes, Why not?
Initially, the city denied our request for footage of the shooting. We appealed, and the city provided its redacted footage.
We’re continuing our appeal.
Why? Because it still isn’t clear what happened at the start of the encounter with Sambrano or after his death.
And perhaps most important, because the public has a right to the complete, original footage from that night.
When people fail to exercise oversight over their police departments, what you get is Chicago. What you get is Los Angeles, where the U.S. Justice Department finally intervened. What you get is Ferguson, Missouri.
Utah’s open records law exists, in part, so the public can hold police accountable. We cannot allow Ogden or any government agency to deny Utahns of that authority.
There’s too much at stake.
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