In S.F., Police Officers May Screen Body Cam Footage Before Filing Reports

Before the city can deploy body cameras for law enforcement, logistics must be laid out.

by Vivian Ho, San Francisco Chronicle / September 3, 2015
(TNS) -- One of the more contentious issues surrounding the national discussion on law enforcement body camera use has emerged in San Francisco’s talks on equipping its police with the devices.

A working group developing a body camera use policy for the San Francisco Police Department could not agree on whether to allow officers to screen their footage before filing reports.

Group members flagged the issue as one that needs further discussion at Wednesday’s Police Commission meeting, where they presented their draft proposal and moved the Police Department a step closer to equipping about 1,600 officers with the high-tech cameras, which law enforcement watchdogs see as a way to hold police accountable and police see as a way to absolve them of wrongdoing.

While civil liberties advocates generally support the body cameras in the interest of transparency, they have warned repeatedly that the use of all surveillance equipment requires community input and a stringent policy before being introduced.

The American Civil Liberties Union has recommended that officers not be allowed to view their footage before filing a report. The issue was hotly debated in Los Angeles before the Police Commission ultimately voted to allow viewing.

Panel’s membership

The San Francisco group working on the draft policy is comprised of representatives from various city groups including members of the department’s command staff, the public defender’s office, the Office of Citizen Complaints, the police officers union and officers from specialized identity groups within the department such as the black officers group Officers for Justice and the Pride Alliance.

During the working group’s meetings, the police officers’ groups supported allowing officers to review footage for the sake of accuracy, but Deputy Public Defender Rebecca Young said it’s important that officers give their accounts of what happened without the temptation of adjusting their recollections based on the video.

She said while officers should be allowed to view the footage in some instances, they shouldn’t be allowed to view it if they are the witness, victim or suspect in a situation like a use-of-force complaint or an arrest for assault on a peace officer.

“We have to understand what causes officers in these cases to make detentions or to pull out their firearms and start firing,” Young said in an interview before the meeting. “There is a carve-out in our policy that in an officer-involved shooting, they do not get to view the footage before writing their report. I think the carve-out should also include when they do detentions and traffic stops and they end up conducting a search. I think what the officer is seeing that justifies the Fourth Amendment intrusion should be written from the officer’s memory — why he felt it was necessary.”

Access question

Young said she was also concerned with the draft policy’s stance on who gets access to the footage. While the policy states that the department will follow federal, state and local statutes regarding public records requests, Young pointed to the Oakland Police Department’s release of two videos of recent deadly encounters — but only to select members of the media — as an example not to follow.

At the meeting, Police Officers Association President Martin Halloran said in order to produce the “most accurate, thorough and complete report,” officers should be allowed to view the footage. He said officers have long been encouraged by the union to cooperate when they are at the center of an officer-involved shooting investigation even when they are not compelled to by internal affairs investigators.

However, he said he did not see that practice continuing if the officers would not be able to view body camera footage. “Attorneys will most likely advise them not to provide that voluntary statement,” he said.

Police Chief Greg Suhr said he thought not allowing the officers to view the footage would breed mistrust.

“If you put these (devices) on the officers with the message that it’s because we don’t trust them to start with, we’re not getting off on the right foot where the officers will embrace this new technology,” he said.

The working group met for 90 days to develop the policy, beginning the discussion shortly after Mayor Ed Lee announced that he was setting aside more than $3 million in the budget for the body cameras.

Police Commission President Suzy Loftus said that although the group did not come to a full consensus on every issue, such as the issue of when officers can view their footage, that was its purpose — to flag for the commission what issues require “a deeper dive.”

The Police Commission will now bring the policy to community meetings for public discussion, with hopes of finishing by October and having preliminary commission approval in November.

The policy will then go to the Police Department for review and then back to the commission for final adoption, Loftus said.

“So far, I’ve been impressed by the product,” she said of the draft policy. “I hope what happens is the commission starts off with a deeper level of understanding on some of the most pressing issues, and that will ensure we are the best police commissioners we can be in that we won’t be coming at an issue that is very complicated completely blind.

“There’s going to be additional questions that the folks in the group have not thought of, and that is something that should happen, too.”

The first public meeting on the body cameras is scheduled for Sept. 16.

©2015 the San Francisco Chronicle Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.