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Body cams vs. smartphones: BART arrest in SF could be test case

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Michael Smith, 22, of Oakland stands outside San Francisco Superior Court on Tuesday, Sept. 13. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)
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When Michael Smith’s arrest on a San Francisco BART platform was recorded and disseminated online by smartphone-wielding bystanders, it appeared to be a cut-and-dry case of police brutality.

The videos show BART police taking Smith to the ground immediately after he exited a train at the Embarcadero station on July 29. Some in the crowd that quickly formed began to holler at the police. Smith had done nothing, they said. The crowd called on the officers to use less force on Smith, who was struggling with officers as his pregnant girlfriend stood nearby, already detained.

Smith, who police said matched the description of a suspect who allegedly threatened to rob a man on the train, spent nearly a week in jail, and BART police launched an investigation that is ongoing.

Now, as the trial start nears, a simple misdemeanor case may turn into a kind of Rashomon-like quandary in video footage: With more and more police equipped with body-worn cameras — including the San Francisco Police Department — there is an increasing chance for discrepancies between what the public captures on cellphones and what is captured on the body cameras.

Body cameras, which are in part meant to help rebuild public trust in police, may not be the panacea some hoped.

“People are gonna expect it to show more,” Sgt. John Conway, one of the first officers equipped with the new cameras, told the San Francisco Examiner in August. “It’s a great idea, but the limitations — I would hope that the public is aware.”

Up to this point in San Francisco, footage from surveillance cameras and smartphones has called into question events as retold by police.

In the case of Mario Woods, several witnesses recorded the Dec. 2, 2015 police killing on their phones, which was in contrast to what then-Police Chief Greg Suhr said of the knife-wielding Woods. Much of the same was true when surveillance footage of the police killing of Luis Gongora did not match with events as retold by police.

In Smith’s case, there is both body camera footage and citizen smartphone footage, according to the District Attorney’s Office. The two narratives do not match, and prosecutors have their own course of events in the arrest of Smith, 22.

“We were concerned by what we saw on the videos that were posted online,” DA spokesperson Alex Bastian said in a statement to the Examiner. “However, once we were able to watch the body camera footage, and saw the defendant bite, kick, finger-gouge and spit on the officers in question, we charged the case accordingly. Thanks to the body cameras, we were even able to see the defendant kicking the body camera off of the chest of one of the officers.”

Regardless of what the different videos show, Smith was not charged with the crime police were responding to, according to Public Defender Jeff Adachi, who is representing Smith.

While Smith has not been charged with anything related to the alleged robbery — Adachi said the alleged victim didn’t want to press charges — Smith has been charged with six counts of misdemeanor battery on an officer and one misdemeanor count of resisting arrest.

“The defendant was booked on felonies, but after reviewing all the evidence we charged him with misdemeanor offenses,” Bastian said.

Adachi, who recognizes the case’s importance because of the numerous pieces of video evidence, says he chose the case because it so blatantly appears to be an example of how police unfairly treat men of color.

“The case epitomizes one of the big problems in the criminal justice system,” Adachi said Tuesday outside of court.

That problem, according to Adachi, is that police of all shades at times treat men of color as “less than human.”

Adachi has yet to review the body camera footage, but said that if it shows what the DA says it does, it still does not make his client guilty of anything, as state law gives people the right to fight back when they have been unlawfully detained.

Still, Smith reportedly has a history of resisting arrest.

Smith was arrested in 2013 and 2014 for petty theft and fare evasion, according to BART police. In both cases, Smith allegedly escalated the situation by either attempting to take an officer’s gun, spitting on an officer or trying to bite one.

Jury selection in Judge Anne-Christine Massullo’s courtroom begins Friday.

Bay City News contributed to this story.

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