Reality in 2019 seems to be coming straight off the pages of George Orwell’s 1984.

On Monday, Feb. 11, Ventura County Judge Henry Walsh ruled in favor of the Ventura County Deputy Sheriff’s Association to block the release of certain police records of misconduct and use of force due to a similar case being heard before the California Supreme Court. (The case concerns the Brady list, a secretive database of officer names who have engaged in acts of “moral turpitude and dishonesty.”) At the center of the issue is Senate Bill 1421, passed last year, which is an amendment to an older law that kept police records from public view. The new bill allows the release of records as of Jan. 1 for issues of:

  • An officer discharged a firearm at a person.
  • Use of force by an officer resulted in death or great bodily injury.
  • An officer sexually assaulted a member of the public, according to a sustained finding by any law enforcement or oversight agency.
  • An officer engaged in dishonesty, according to a sustained finding by any law enforcement or oversight agency.

The concern here is not how the bill works moving forward, but whether or not it should and could be applied retroactively. The local deputies’ union argued that the amended law should not supersede officers’ rights to privacy. Judge Walsh was being fair with respect to the fact that this case was already being heard and the lower courts should wait and see what the final higher court ruling is. At the same time, however, Oxnard Police Department announced it was using civilian security footage to improve law enforcement outcomes.

The new system, Axon Citizen, allows the submission of data, including pictures and footage from the public, directly to a manageable database for law enforcement to review.

“Now, it’s easier than ever to collect and manage evidence from the community. With Axon Citizen, you can invite individual witnesses — or an entire community — to submit photos and videos of an incident directly to your agency,” according to the Axon Citizen website. In this case, the right to civilian privacy, especially those who do not know they are being recorded and for those who appear to be breaking laws but maybe are not, takes a back seat to law enforcement priorities. Literally.

In Orwell’s book, 1984, society is dominated by “telescreens,” where the people behind the screen have complete autonomy while those in front, the audience, are being recorded visually and audibly as government propaganda becomes the sole source of information available. In 2019, while Axon Citizen gives law enforcement access to any information contributed by the citizens, for better or worse for the general public, there is also a serious legal question being decided upon whether or not law enforcement, while on duty serving the public and paid by taxypayers, should have any accountability for their behavior prior to Jan. 1, when SB 1421 took effect.

If the higher court rules in favor of police privacy, it’s a narrow, wobbly edge that could lead to complete lack of accountability for law enforcement, all in the name of safety of citizens and law enforcement alike, at least according to Axon Citizen. If the public can’t hold the police accountable using evidence (just as law enforcement uses evidence of the public) then what is next? Absolute power corrupts absolutely.

In the end, there must be balance. The right to privacy should be wholly equal for law enforcement and the public. If the police can use surveillance of an unknowing public to arrest and convict, so should the public be able to use police footage that demonstrates that police are not truly serving the best interests of the public but their own personal agendas. We are all just human and should be accountable for our actions, whether in civilian wear or police uniforms. We can only hope that the higher court agrees.