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Saturday, May 11 2013 11:00 PM

Policing the streets in age of constant digital scrutiny

By The Bakersfield Californian

It won't be surprising if we get two wildly divergent versions of what exactly happened when police arrested David Sal Silva in Bakersfield last week: the sheriff's account and the account of witnesses who watched it unfold.

Two things are known. One: Silva died after a violent confrontation with at least nine peace officers, several wielding batons. Two: An unbiased, objective record of the confrontation may exist in the form of mobile phone video recorded by at least two witnesses. Police have seized those mobile phones.

It is a new fact of life in the digital world. Technology is ever-present, and a large percentage of the citizenry owns a video-equipped cellphone. Their use in situations like Wednesday's can work both ways. They can substantially acquit officers' actions in a difficult, dangerous situation, or they can illuminate the need for additional training, policy evaluation or even criminal charges.

The question now: Were these phones seized for their evidentiary value as legitimate components of the investigation? Or were they seized to prevent the public from seeing what occurred on that street outside Kern Medical Center? The answer could well lie in what becomes of those videos in the next several days. If the seizure was in fact legal -- and several prominent local defense attorneys indicate it probably was, even though the law is murky -- they should be returned intact to their rightful owners once the evidence has been collected. We are not aware of any law that allows the state to seize legal ownership of copyrighted or proprietary materials, and videos recorded in public, even of police activity, are proprietary material owned by the citizen.

Once returned, it should be the decision of the rightful owner to decide whether they should be made public. It's not up to the Sheriff's Office.

In 1992, an unknown citizen named George Holliday captured lightning in a bottle with his video recording of Los Angeles police beating Rodney King. Two decades ago such tapings were rare. Today almost anyone can be a George Holliday. If the police response is seizure of these videos, we will need legal clarification of the practice. And if the courts hold such seizures to be legal for evidentiary value, what should become of those videos after they have served their "evidentiary" purpose?

The best government is the one that operates in the sunlight of scrutiny, and that applies to law enforcement agencies. If public scrutiny helps law enforcement operate more safely and efficiently -- and in the vast majority of cases it does -- that scrutiny should not be stifled unnecessarily.

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