Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Serious Problems With San Francisco's Proposed Requirement for Police to Wear Body Cameras

By Starchild

Public awareness of routine police violence, a serious problem in many parts of the world, has perhaps never been higher. The problem is not new of course, but thanks to the widespread use of video recording devices it has become much more visible. 

In the United States, the deaths at police hands of victims like Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, and many others have become national news and led to uprisings and clashes in places like Baltimore and Ferguson. Locally, victims like Alex Nieto, Idriss Stelley, Amilcar Perez-Lopez, Kenneth Harding, and others have been shot and killed by members of the SFPD under often dubious circumstances.

This epidemic of police violence isn’t the fault of police officers alone. Officers are expected to enforce too many bad laws. Government programs like the failed “War on Drugs”, asset forfeiture – having your cash or property seized by police, often without ever being charged with a crime, and the burden falling on you to get it back – and statutes criminalizing victimless “crimes” like prostitution, gaming, carrying a weapon for self-defense, unlicensed economic activity (e.g. Eric Garner selling loose cigarettes), or just sitting on the sidewalk, are unjust and should have never been on the books.

Nevertheless, police officers have discretion in whether to issue a citation, make an arrest, or stop someone in the first place. When an officer chooses to take action to enforce an unjust law or obey an unconstitutional order, or uses excessive force in carrying out legitimate objectives, s/he becomes morally responsible for that choice. When Nazis at the Nuremberg trials protested that they were just following orders, this did not absolve them of guilt for the crimes they committed.

Until recently, law enforcers who commit serious crimes have rarely been charged, let alone jailed, for their offenses. In fact, officers involved in suspected wrongful shooting or excessive use of force incidents are often given paid vacations (when you hear the term “administrative leave”, that’s what it means).

To be clear, most of the egregious police shootings and brutality incidents we hear about are committed by a small percentage of officers. Too often though, their colleagues fail to report and speak out against these abuses, or even cover for the bad cops, making themselves complicit and giving the police as a whole a bad reputation.

With growing demands for reform, hopefully this culture is beginning to change. But the public also wants officers to commit fewer abuses in the first place. Toward this end, one reform that’s received much attention is the idea of requiring police officers to wear body cameras to videotape for the record their interactions with members of the public.

In a number of cities, police departments have been ordered to start using such cameras, and a similar effort is underway here in San Francisco. This past summer a working group held several meetings and produced a proposed body camera policy, which has been presented to the Police Commission.

Unfortunately, this draft policy as written has some serious problems. Advocates of civil and human rights have pointed out at subsequent Police Commission hearings in September, October, and November that:

• The policy contains no specified consequences for police officers who fail to turn their cameras on when they are supposed to, or otherwise violate the policy
• The policy would allow officers to legally turn off their cameras during an incident if told to do so by a superior officer – and does not say under what specific conditions a superior can legally give such an order
• The policy would give the SFPD control over access to recorded video footage, instead of requiring it to be turned over to an independent agency like the Police Commission
• The policy contains no public transparency provisions to require recordings of suspected use of excessive force incidents filmed in public places (i.e. not inside private homes without the consent of residents) to be made available to members of the press and the public

The points above are just the tip of the iceberg – there is no space here for a discussion of all the document's troubling details.

How did this happen? Given the composition and process of the working group, which started with a document prepared by SFPD staff and met with little publicity and few if any non-members present, it is little surprise. Participants included several representatives of the Police Officers Association and other law enforcement groups, but only one member of the public and apparently only one outspoken defender of civil liberties (Rebecca Young of the Public Defender’s Office).

For members of the SFPD to be in the working group at all was a conflict of interest. Persons drafting policy should listen to input from police officers along with everyone else, but for the employees whom a policy is designed to hold accountable to be directly involved in writing its rules themselves is improper and should not be allowed.

The police chief, Greg Suhr, is also allowed to sit on the panel with members of the Police Commission during commission meetings, and to remain with commissioners when members of the public are asked to leave the room for a closed session. During one recent meeting, the head of the Police Commission even accidentally addressed the chief as “Commissioner Suhr” before correcting herself.

This kind of cozy arrangement in which the boundaries between the regulators and the regulated are blurred, and police exercising life-and-death powers are effectively allowed to police themselves, is one reason why misuse of force has reached crisis levels – truly independent oversight is lacking.

San Francisco residents need to make sure this pattern does not continue when it comes to the SFPD’s use of body cameras. If it does, then the plan to spend hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars to outfit officers with these cameras (not to mention equipment maintenance and record-keeping costs) will be a waste of money which will solve nothing.

The biggest point of controversy concerning the draft policy so far has been its loose rules regarding officers viewing footage captured on their cameras. The police union representatives who’ve spoken at Commission hearings all want officers to be free to look at these recordings prior to writing police reports about incidents that have been filmed. But few if any of the dozens of members of the public who’ve testified, not to mention representatives of civil rights groups present including the Bay Area Civil Liberties Coalition, the Libertarian Party, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and the American Civil Liberties Union among others who’ve given testimony at the hearings, agree with them.

The draft policy (latest version online at ) would let SFPD members view footage on their cameras, “except when the member is the subject of the investigation” (criminal or internal) in “an officer-involved shooting or in-custody death” that was “captured by the body worn camera”.
So an officer who behaves improperly, and wants to think up a story after the fact that comports with the evidence in order to justify his behavior, can look at the video to aid him in doing so as long as he has not been declared “the subject of the investigation”. And even if he eventually does become "the subject of the investigation", he can still review the video before he is questioned about the incident, “subject to the discretion of the Chief of Police and/or the lead administrative or criminal investigator on scene.” Again this is the police policing themselves, with no objective standards.

Police union reps insist they just want to ensure that officer reports and testimony are as accurate as possible. They say those who want officers to write their reports before reviewing video footage of an incident are just trying to “play ‘gotcha’”. But if other people involved in an incident – arrestees, victims, and civilian witnesses – are not allowed to watch body camera videos prior to giving statements, then officers must be held to the same standard.

Considering how rarely police officers face serious criminal charges, someone who’s been arrested usually has a lot more to worry about in terms of “gotcha” moments than an officer does. As Commissioner Petra DeJesus and others have noted, an officer can always write a supplemental report if, upon viewing a video, s/he sees that it shows something different than what s/he wrote in an initial report. But having initial reports written based on an officer’s own recollections, not just what video shows, is critical in terms of preserving a record of the officer’s state of mind regarding an incident prior to being influenced by video evidence.

The Police Commission is meeting on Wednesday, Dec. 2, at 5:30pm in City Hall, room 400 and has on its agenda, “Discussion and action to approve the Body Worn Camera Draft Policy” (see

Members of the public are urged to show up and speak out for a strong body camera policy that holds police officers accountable with proper oversight, and ensures transparency while protecting civil liberties! If you can’t be there in person, you can email your concerns to  . 

Starchild is outreach director of the Libertarian Party of San Francisco and a past candidate for the Board of Supervisors.

1 comment:

  1. The last thing we need in any case is expanded federal ANYTHING.