After public records outcry, Laguna Beach officials are expected to release body-worn camera footage of City Manager Shohreh Dupuis’ cell phone traffic stop last year, in which she told the officer she was on the phone with the police chief.
At their regular meeting last Tuesday, five city council members said they’ve reviewed the footage and that there was no sign of wrongdoing by Dupuis.
But given the level of interest among City Hall observers, and criticism over the city’s initial refusal to release the video, council members like Alex Roughani said the city should take any steps to minimize the perception of secrecy.
“We live in a time where distrust of our government and institutions is at record high levels.”
It stems from a traffic stop of Dupuis last year for driving while using a cell phone.
In November, Dupuis had her phone in her hand on Coast Highway when motor officer Matt Gregg pulled next to her. He stopped her near the intersection with Thalia Street, and during this interaction, Dupuis told the officer she had been on the phone with Police Chief Jeff Calvert, his boss.
[Read: How A Coastal Highway Traffic Stop Led to Cries of Public Record Suppression]
Gregg believed Dupuis was lying (it would’ve still been an infraction) and cited her.
But the matter persisted. Public statements at later City Council meetings revealed that Dupuis, Chief Calvert, a police captain and the motor officer discussed Dupuis’ traffic stop on later occasions, as well as a possible “misunderstanding” about the incident’s details.
When a resident and city columnist, Michele Monda, requested records around the footage – namely the body-worn camera footage of the stop – she ran into problems.
And after Monda raised objections at public council meetings, City Council members decided to hand the footage over.
“The world’s not going to end over this coming out,” said Mayor Bob Whalen before the vote. “I think it will corroborate the city manager acted entirely appropriately.”
Still, council members were split over whether or not to release it.
Whalen and Councilwoman Sue Kempf said it would set a poor precedent by releasing the video, and said that if they release the city manager’s traffic stop, then they ought to release all traffic stop footage in the city.
“A lot of people in this town get a ticket and there’s no big community outrage,” Kempf said. “There’s nothing wrong with it, but I don’t want to set a precedent that the city of Laguna Beach takes a minor traffic violation and releases the video to the public.”
Others said as long as the city kept the footage out of the public eye, suspicion would only grow over what it showed.
“I don’t think this disclosure means an average citizen who gets pulled over would be subject to that interaction under public records act requests,” Rounaghi said, adding that keeping the video confidential introduced “unnecessary uncertainty and suspicion.”
Councilman George Weiss said he felt that Dupuis telling the officer she was on the phone with the police chief exerted “undue influence,” with her position, but other council members pointed out that she still received a ticket.
“I don’t think that’s exercising undue influence, I think that’s just stating the truth, ‘I was on the phone with the police chief when you pulled me over,’” Whalen said. “The ticket was given and paid for.”
It remains unclear precisely when the public will see the video, with city staff noting that they would redact portions of the footage containing personal information, like Dupuis’ license plate.
Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NBiesiada.
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