Behind the Headlines: How CBS Reporter Julie Watts Is Pushing for Police Transparency 

CBS News California Investigates reporter Julie Watts spent more than a year demanding answers for her series Failed Policies. She has now taken one police department to court to enforce the public’s right of access to footage of police shootings.

Access to body cam footage of controversial shooting at center of important public records lawsuit

By Ginny LaRoe, First Amendment Coalition

Thirty-nine seconds.

That’s how much footage the public gets to see from each officer’s body camera on the day of a deadly, multi-agency shootout in a popular park in a Sacramento suburb. That’s because the Roseville Police Department, one of the agencies involved in the chaotic shootout that lasted close to an hour, has refused to disclose the remaining footage.

That’s despite repeated requests by CBS News California Investigates reporter Julie Watts, who sought the recordings under a 2019 state law that guarantees public access to body cam videos of police shootings like these. 

Watts spent more than a year investigating the decision by the California Highway Patrol (CHP) to serve a planned, high-risk search warrant on an armed man at a public park that was filled with children during spring break of 2023. A 72-year-old man was killed in the gunfire and his wife was taken hostage and wounded. To report the series, Failed Policies, Watts submitted a California Public Records Act request for body cam and other audio and visual recordings of the day. But Roseville police say they only have to release footage of the 39 seconds after their officers discharged their weapons.

Watts and CBS are pushing back. CBS filed a public records lawsuit to enforce the police transparency law for all. FAC, which fights for access to police records like these, talked with Watts about the story and what’s at stake.

Q: Why did you pursue the Failed Policies series? 

A:  In short, we were determined to get answers.

CHP is the governor’s police force with jurisdiction across the state. The more we learned about the questionable policies and controversial decisions that led up to the deadly shootout, the more we realized that what happened in Roseville could happen in any California city.

CHP refused to comment on its actions, take accountability, or offer any assurances that this wouldn’t happen again.  

Then, as we began requesting standard public records to help provide context and clarity, and some level of closure for a traumatized community, it became clear that multiple agencies were withholding records and recordings that the public is entitled to see under state law. 

That made us question, why? Was there something they didn’t want the public to know? 

CHP initially denied the existence of audio and video recordings from the shootout that the agency was legally required to make public within 45 days of the incident. It only released its dash camera video and aerial footage months later after CBS News California Investigates independently confirmed its existence through sources and threatened legal action. 

CHP officers were not wearing body cameras, but Roseville PD officers were. And that agency refused to release more than four 39-second clips from their officers’ cameras. 

Open-government lawyers, like FAC’s David Loy, and lawmakers raised concerns that the decisions to withhold public records could have a ripple effect across the state and impact transparency following future police shootings.

Q: What questions do your viewers still have about what happened that day?

A: There are many: 

  • Why did CHP choose to serve a search warrant on an armed felon (with a history of violence and running from cops) at a public park surrounded by kids at day camp instead of at the suspect’s home? 
  • Why did CHP deny the existence of audio and video recordings from the shootout until CBS News California confirmed its existence through internal sources and threatened legal action? 
  • Who fired the fatal shot, killing James MacEgan? 
  • What does the full body camera video from the Roseville Police Department show?

Q: You ultimately decided to sue the Roseville Police Department to enforce the California Public Records Act. What’s at the heart of the dispute? 

A: Our primary concern is that a California police department is refusing to release body camera video and its legal argument could roll back law-enforcement transparency across the state.

State law requires agencies to release any “recording that relates to a critical incident,” or a law enforcement shooting. It clarifies that they must release recordings that “depict” an incident involving the discharge of a firearm. 

However, the Roseville Police Department is refusing to release its full body camera video arguing that the “critical incident” is only the moment that the bullet leaves the gun and therefore they only have to release video of the “discharge of the firearm.”

This robs the public of important context including what led up to the shooting, and what happened after. 

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 we decided to do. 

Q: What’s the next development in your case? 

A: We’re heading to court. A hearing is set in the case in Placer County Superior Court on July 23.

Q: What do you hope comes out of this case?

A: In addition to obtaining the video, we hope to prevent one agency from effectively rewriting state law. 

The author of the law in question, San Francisco Assemblymember Phil Ting, told me Roseville’s interpretation is neither the intent nor the letter of the law. However, if allowed to stand, the agency’s interpretation of the law could prompt other agencies to start withholding video. 

We hope that this lawsuit will clarify that all California law enforcement agencies are required to release all recordings related to an officer-involved shooting, including recordings that depict what led up to the shooting. 

We hope our fight for transparency will ultimately help other journalists who may not have the time, resources, or experience to fight for records like we have. 

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

Q: You recently spoke to early-career journalists who are part of the FOI Bootcamp for Journalists of Color program, FAC participates in, about strategies reporters must use to try to access records. Do you think it’s too difficult for the press – and therefore the public – to access this kind of information? 

A: Absolutely. In California, there are often no consequences for public agencies who violate freedom of information laws. Far too often we see agencies illegally redact, delay, charge exorbitant fees for, or deny the existence of records that the public has a right to see. 

As a long-time investigative reporter, I have the knowledge and historical context to strategically fight for records when we are illegally or improperly denied. However, most members of the public do not. 

You shouldn’t have to be an investigative reporter to get access to public records. Here are just two examples of the *real struggle* for *real people* to gain access to public records: 



  • Bookmark FAC’s Police Transparency Guide, which includes templates for submitting your own California Public Records Act requests for body cam and other recordings of police shootings.
  • Are you a reporter or member of the public seeking public records and have a question for our experts? You can write to FAC’s Free Legal Hotline. It’s free and open to all.