The Police Commission voted on a body-worn camera policy that prohibits officers from viewing footage in critical situations such as an officer-involved shooting.
(TNS) -- In a surprising move, the San Francisco Police Commission voted Wednesday for a body-worn camera policy that prohibits officers from viewing footage in critical situations such as an officer-involved shooting — an issue that has moved front and center in the debate over police accountability in San Francisco and across the country.
But the policy would also allow officers to view the videos in question at the discretion of the chief — an amendment that some at Wednesday’s meeting said could negate any progress made with the commission’s decision.
The vote, however contentious it was, takes the police department one step closer to equipping 1,800 officers with body-worn cameras, a technology that has long been lauded by law enforcement watchdogs and police alike as something that will both hold officers accountable and protect them from false complaints.
Several commissioners previously sided with the police department in saying that officers should be allowed to view footage before filing reports, even in critical incidents, because doing so would only ensure accurate and more thorough incident reports.
Law enforcement watchdog groups argued that officers should not be allowed to view the footage at all because at best, it could taint their recollections of events, and at worst, lead them to adjust their reports accordingly.
The policy that was approved by the Police Commission was a compromise proposed by members of the working group tasked with developing the guidelines: an officer can use the video for “any legitimate investigatory purpose,” but not if the video is of a shooting, in-custody death or criminal investigation that involves the officer in question.
“Body cameras should ensure accountability and not abuse, and we believe strongly that allowing officers to review footage before making a statement in critical incidents gives the officer an unfair advantage that witnesses and victims don’t have,” said Tessa D’Arcangelew, an organizer with the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California. “Our position goes beyond officer-involved shootings and criminal investigations to also include use-of-force and allegations of misconduct. It’s a compromise, but it’s a step forward.”
The policy was passed following several hours of public comment from police officers, attorneys and members of the public. This was in addition to months of public hearings and rule drafting following Mayor Ed Lee’s announcement that he was setting aside more than $3 million for the cameras.
The issue of whether officers should be allowed to view the footage was so hotly contested that the commission created different versions of the policy proposal in preparation for Wednesday’s meeting.
Six of the commissioners voted in favor of the draft prohibiting viewing in critical incidents. Commissioner Petra DeJesus, who was outspoken on her stance that officers should never be allowed to view footage in a critical incident like an officer-involved shooting before giving a statement to investigators, passed before voting no on the policy that included the amendment permitting viewing at the chief’s discretion.
“The best practice right now is to isolate the officer and take his statement immediately,” DeJesus said. “It’s not what the officer knew in hindsight, it’s what the officer knew at the time the force was used. It’s not a hindsight decision and not what’s available for him to review before he makes his statement. Telling him that he can watch the video is changing a best practice that’s national.”
D’Arcangelew said any amendment that would allow officers to “have an unfair advantage to review footage that witnesses and victims don’t have” could only serve to hurt police and community relations.
“It’s not ideal that the police chief has the discretion to allow officers to review footage before they give statements, but the police commission still has oversight over this issue,” she said. “The provision shouldn’t be invoked every time and when it is, it should be thoroughly documented. Ultimately, police body cameras need to remain a tool for accountability and starting to rebuild trust with the community.”
The police officers that spoke at the meeting echoed sentiments expressed at previous sessions when they asked the commissioners to consider how stress and adrenaline from the job could skew memories. They said they felt it was necessary to view the footage before writing a report or giving a statement in order to provide the most accurate information possible.
Police Officers Association President Martin Halloran previously said if officers are not allowed to view footage, the union would most likely advise them not to cooperate when they are at the center of an officer-involved shooting investigation.
The policy must pass by the union and the Department of Human Resources before it is sent back to the commission for final approval. Though Halloran said he would have preferred the draft that allowed officers to view footage before giving statements in critical incidents,— he said the union could work with the draft that ultimately passed, known as Version Three.
“If the commission approved Version Three, we will work with Version Three,” he said. “There is some small language that may need to be tweaked, but it is an acceptable version.”
Though the vote was planned months in advance, the meeting just happened to take place an hour after San Francisco police officers fatally shot a man they said had a knife in the Bayview neighborhood. A civilian video soon emerged showing the man up against a building gesturing as armed officers surround him.
The video was circulated and watched on phones and other mobile devices during public comment.
“This is a precise type of situation that we’re debating tonight,” said Public Defender Jeff Adachi.
Adachi, whose office was part of the working group that developed the policy, said he was overall pleased with the commission’s decision.
“The commission also rightly recognized that they will need to revisit the policy in the near future to see what is and is not working,” he said.
©2015 the San Francisco Chronicle Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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