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What is a local law enforcement agency hiding? CBS sues for body camera footage to find out.

VIDEO: What is a local law enforcement agency hiding? CBS sues for body camera footage to find out.
What is a local law enforcement agency hiding? CBS sues for body camera video to find out. 05:55

CALIFORNIA – A California police department is refusing to release body camera video – and its legal argument could roll back law-enforcement transparency across the state. CBS News California is now suing the Roseville Police Department, not just to get the video but to prevent a local agency from effectively rewriting state law.

For nearly a year, CBS News California Investigative Reporter Julie Watts attempted to avoid this lawsuit by working with law enforcement to get video from a fatal multi-agency shootout. But one local agency is simply refusing to release body camera video that the public has a right to see.

The shootout began with a controversial decision by the California Highway Patrol (CHP) to serve a planned high-risk search warrant to an armed felon at a public park that was filled with kids during spring break. An elderly man was killed, his wife was taken hostage and shot, and nearly a year later the traumatized families caught in the crossfire are still desperate for answers. 

ALSO WATCH: Failed Policies: One Suspect. Three Agencies. Countless Questions.

"I keep thinking about bad guys."  

These days, 7-year-old Sawyer is always on the lookout.

"I keep thinking about bad guys," Sawyer said.

And he has a good reason.

Sawyer's mom, Kelsey, decided to meet friends at Mahany Park in Roseville last April during spring break.

"There were kids all over," Kelsey said. "Kids at camp, kids without their parents."

Little did they know, a CHP special task force had already made what turned out to be a fatal decision to serve a planned high-risk search warrant to an armed felon at the public park without clearing the park or notifying local police.

"I just really don't understand why they chose this park that day," Kelsey said.

For days, the CHP had been surveilling a felon with a history of running from police. He was a suspect in a freeway shooting two months earlier, 20 miles away in Sacramento. However, instead of serving the warrant at the suspect's home, they chose to wait until he took his dog to the park for a daily walk.

Court records allege that when officers confronted the suspect, Eric Abril, he began shooting at them, hitting one. 

The CHP officers fired back as Abril ran toward the batting cages – where kids were playing. Bullet holes near the batting cages revealed just how close children were to being shot in the crossfire.

Jim MacEgan and his high school sweetheart, Patty, were out for a walk. They'd just celebrated their 50th anniversary. It would be their last.

As local police swarmed the park, responding to calls of shots fired, Jim was killed and Abril took Patty hostage, using her as a human shield.

"I was thinking that (he) would shoot me," seven-year-old Sawyer said.

Park staff quickly rushed Sawyer and other kids into the library where they had to hide under the tables to avoid the windows. The kids were locked down for roughly two hours but Kelesey says the trauma is ongoing. 

 "He was too scared to go to sleep. He would double-check all the locks," she said, adding that the sound of sirens still triggers Sawyer.

"It could happen to anyone's family at any park."  

Nearly a year later, the community is desperate for answers and accountability.  

"I would like to ask the CHP if they would make the same decision if their kids were at the park where they chose to go after a violent criminal," Kelsey said. "It was very much a deliberate decision. It could happen to anyone's family at any park.

The CHP is the Governor's police force with jurisdiction across the state. Despite widespread criticism, including criticism from fellow law enforcement, the CHP won't answer questions or acknowledge any policy changes when serving high-risk warrants.  

"It feels like they're trying to cover it up," Kelsey said.    

The agency declined multiple interview requests, stating in an email to CBS News California, "(t)he Department respectfully cannot answer any questions that may influence decisions criminally or administratively that remain under investigation."

So, CBS News California has been searching for answers for the community, using public records, including video from that day.

What are They Hiding? 

For more than six months, the CHP claimed dash camera and aerial video from the shootout didn't exist. We knew it did, repeatedly warning the state police that they were violating state law which requires they release it.

CHP eventually released edited videos which appear to begin after MacEgan was killed.

NOTE: Out of respect for the victims and their families, CBS has chosen not to publish any images of the MacEgans from that day - even blurred or redacted.

The Placer County Sheriff's Department hasn't released his coroner's report, but multiple sources told CBS News that the autopsy was inconclusive about where the fatal shot came from – meaning, it's not clear who fired it.

The CHP officers weren't wearing body cameras, but Roseville officers were.

The Roseville Police Department, which took over the investigation, says it's "confident (the suspect) fatally shot the … victim," but the agency is still refusing to release their full body camera video from that day. 

Roseville PD will only release four 39-second edited clips from their body camera video – which appear to show officers shooting at each other amid the chaos, but provide little transparency or context for what went wrong that day.

Law Enforcement, Violating State Law?

State law requires agencies to release any "recording that relates to a critical incident," or law enforcement shooting.

LAPD policy, based on state law, says they have to release "Video (of) the actions and events leading up to and including the critical incident."

The San Francisco Police Department has a similar policy and hosts its videos on the city's YouTube channel.

However, Roseville PD is now attempting to rewrite state law. Instead of releasing recordings that "depict" an *incident involving* the discharge of a firearm. They claim they only have to release video *of* the "discharge of the firearm."

"The video is public property," said San Francisco Assemblymember Phil Ting who wrote the law that Roseville is trying to change.

He worries that the agency's interpretation of the law could prompt other agencies to start withholding video. Ting stressed that the public pays for the police cameras and the servers they store the video on, so the video belongs to the public.

"When you drafted this legislation, did you intend to define the critical incident as 'only the moments of the discharge of a firearm'?" we asked Ting.

"Absolutely not. Because if that was the case, that would have been written into law," Asm. Ting said. "In order to provide transparency, you need to know what's happening leading up to the confrontation."

If left unchallenged, transparency advocates are concerned that Roseville PD's interpretation of the law could set a precedent for future police shootings across the state. 

Suing the Police

In California, if an agency refuses to release public records, the only option is to sue to compel them to comply with the law. So, after nearly a year of fighting for the video, that's what CBS has decided to do. 

The purpose of fighting for this video is not to air graphic or sensational images is to provide context, clarity, and closure for a traumatized community.

The purpose of the lawsuit is to prevent one agency from effectively rewriting state law.

"I imagine there will be a court decision on this," said law enforcement consultant John McGinnis.

The former Sacramento County Sheriff supports police transparency but he also supports Roseville PD in this case.

"Roseville PD is saying … 'We're going to make you sue us to get this video and taxpayers are going to have to foot the bill.' Is that fair?" we asked.

"I don't know why they're withholding it, but if they believe they're on solid ground if they're doing the right thing, I say stand on principle and let another branch of government make that decision," McGinnis said.

CBS has now filed our body camera lawsuit against the Roseville Police Department. We expect the first hearing in May.  

Suspect Eric Abril's preliminary hearing is expected the first week of April. 

He is now facing additional charges for escaping from a local hospital about a month after the shootout. In a twist of fate, when he was captured, Abril was found hiding in the creek just feet from Sawyer's grandma's front door.

Sawyer's learned a lot over the past year, maybe more than any seven-year-old should have to.

He says he knows 911 and he has a plan for next time.

"I would be like dodging and dodging the gun shoots... and then I would hide," Sawyer explained.  

Kelsey's hoping the full body camera video will shed light on the CHP's plan that day, providing answers and accountability so other kids don't feel the need to plan for a CHP shootout.

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