Written by Dr Derek Kerr & Dr Maria Rivero
Violent and militarized encounters between police and communities of color, largely recorded by bystanders and shared on social media, have raised nationwide alarms. "Copwatch" groups are now "policing the police" to expose the dark side of law enforcement. Such community alienation can paralyze crime-fighting. In December 2014, the White House issued an edict titled "Strengthening Community Policing" to "fortify the trust that must exist between law enforcement officers and the communities they serve." It provides $75 million in matching funds for police departments to buy 50,000 body cameras. On 4/30/15 Mayor Ed Lee grabbed the offer, allocating $6.6 million over 2 years to deploy 1,800 bodycams "for every police officer on the street."
There have been at least 100 SFPD shootings since 2000, many controversial. The Office of Citizen Complaints receives over 500 complaints annually. Many others are handled by SFPD's Internal Affairs. Citizens testified to fearing the SFPD and losing faith in police reports. For critical incidents, they wanted officers to write a report, then view the video and file an addendum, if needed.”
Police Chief Greg Suhr called for body cameras in May 2011 - after Public Defender Jeff Adachi released videos of cops illegally searching and ripping-off hotel residents. In 2013 Suhr cut a $250,000 no-bid deal with TASER International to pilot bodycams. The SFPD bodycam pilot went nowhere, boggled by logistics, policy development and institutional resistance to being watched. On 4/18/14 the Board of Supervisors' Neighborhood Services & Safety Committee urged the SFPD to formulate a bodycam policy, despite a projected 5-year cost of $21 million. A year later, DA George Gascon demanded action instead of "playing games."
"Bodycams" are pager-sized devices that clip onto a police officer's uniform to record video and audio. They are tools for the public and law enforcement, a "third witness" to hold police accountable and to deter spurious complaints. To build trust, bodycams must add to the transparency afforded by citizen videos, without enabling police cover-ups, intrusions on privacy, or mass surveillance. Bodycams should also be cost-effective. Once federal matching funds expire, expenses for maintenance, upgrades, video storage fees, personnel time and training will grow. However, bodycams could cut litigation costs by deterring misbehavior by police and civilians alike. In Rialto CA, they reduced citizen complaints by 88% and use-of-force incidents by 60%. Such savings could be wiped out by lawsuits for violations of privacy or freedom of expression. To preserve public funds and trust, sound policies are essential.
On 5/13/15 the Police Commission directed the SFPD to create a Body Camera Working Group to draft a policy in 90 days. The Working Group met publicly 6 times between June and August 2015. Law enforcement was heavily represented. Also included were the Office of Citizen Complaints, ACLU, Public Defender, SF Bar Association, and Human Rights Commission. On 6/9/15 Supervisor Avalos introduced Ordinance 150623 calling for a Surveillance Data Policy with annual audits by the Controller's Office. When the Working Group's draft policy was delivered on 8/11/15, one issue was unresolved: whether officers involved in shootings, in-custody deaths or alleged misconduct should view bodycam videos before or after writing their reports.
In 5 hearings from 9/2/15 to 12/2/15, the Police Commission reviewed the draft policy, adding the best practices set forth in Assembly Bill 69. Passed on 10/3/15, AB 69 grants ownership of bodycam recordings to police departments with chain-of-custody rules, along with public access per the California Public Records Act. All agreed that officers could view videos of routine encounters, but disagreed over viewing footage of critical incidents. While the Commission promised to "vote in recognition of the new normal that trust is a more important metric than an arrest rate," it had to appease both cops and civilians.
Police Perspectives: The SFPD maintains that officer-involved shootings are rare, less than 3 per 10,000 arrests. Currently, involved officers are interviewed voluntarily and allowed to see videos to "trigger recall" before filing a written report. The Police Officers Association (POA) warned that cops will withhold voluntary statements unless they can view bodycam videos. Although cops can be compelled to make a statement, whatever they report under threat of disciplinary action cannot be used against them per the Peace Officer's Bill of Rights. So viewing videos beforehand would better serve investigations and justice.
Cops of all stripes emphasized that SFPD policy demands that "all evidence shall be included" in their reports. Yet, the adrenaline-fueled reaction to traumatic incidents causes memory lapses, "tunnel-vision" and "acoustic suppression." Only by viewing videos beforehand could they deliver "the most accurate and complete" statements expected. They cited similar practices in San Diego and Los Angeles. Entrusting officers to carry guns while denying access to bodycam videos would show that "you don't trust me," one said. Another emphasized that "being treated like a criminal suspect" would be more "divisive." Others faulted the logic of writing "a legal government document before reviewing the evidence." Plus, video ownership was claimed as "the officer's point of view." Writing an initial report, then viewing the video, and then writing a supplemental report would "set up officers to fail" said Chief Suhr. It could expose them to the "gotcha" when their credibility is challenged for any discrepancies.
Civilian Concerns: There have been at least 100 SFPD shootings since 2000, many controversial. The Office of Citizen Complaints receives over 500 complaints annually. Many others are handled by SFPD's Internal Affairs. Citizens testified to fearing the SFPD and losing faith in police reports. For critical incidents, they wanted officers to write a report, then view the video and file an addendum, if needed. They cited similar police practices in Oakland and San Jose. Further, the Inspector General's audit of the NYPD's bodycam pilot program determined that officers should not view videos before reporting on incidents with misconduct implications.