When the San Francisco Police Department started rolling out its body-worn cameras late last year, use of the devices was governed by a long-discussed policy. That policy included everything from when an officer must turn on the device to what must be done if an officer fails to make a recording.
What it did not include was what officers are to do if, or when, they mute the audio on their devices — a key part of accurately documenting a particular incident.
Last month, the SFPD addressed the issue in a July 11 bulletin, less than a week after the San Francisco Examiner reported on officers’ use of the mute button and a lack of policy around such actions.
“Members shall only use the mute feature with a specific articulable purpose,” reads the July 11 bulletin issued by Chief Bill Scott. “If a member deactivates (mutes) the audio during an event, the member shall document the reason (s) for terminating the audio recording in CAD, an incident report, written statement or memorandum.”
The department previously had a policy in place for when officers turn off video recordings, but not one for silencing the audio. A bulletin, which can be issued by the chief without a vote by the Police Commission, stands for three years.
The issue of muted audio seems to have been absent from the creation of the policy, as other issues were more important at the time, several people involved in creating the policy previously told the Examiner. But the issue was prevalent enough that defense attorneys in criminal court were noticing muted audio, according to Public Defender Jeff Adachi.
“Unfortunately, most of the body camera video we receive are still missing portions of audio,” Adachi said. “Failing to turn on audio, or turning it off and on at an officer’s whim, appears to be the rule rather the exception. That’s troubling, because body cameras protect both the police and the public.”
The San Francisco Police Officers Association said it has no issue with the new bulletin. POA President Martin Halloran was reportedly told by Chief Scott on May 17 that the mute option would not be removed and that the matter would be included in a bulletin.
“We are on the same page as the chief,” said Nathan Ballard, a spokesperson for the POA.
The department, which did not respond to a question on why the bulletin was issued, introduced the cameras to increase transparency and rebuild public trust in its more than 2,000 officers. In the past several years, there have been a litany of scandals plaguing the SFPD, from racist text messages to fatal shootings caught on tape.
Police have said they need to be able to shut off both the camera and it’s audio when sensitive personal information or operational and tactical information may be recorded. The Axon Body 2, the model used by San Francisco police, was given the mute option after multiple departments across the country requested it.
The importance of audio recording on the cameras made by Axon, formerly known as Taser Corp., was illustrated in the case of Shawn Moore, a man who was shot by SFPD Officer Kenneth Cha on his Oceanview doorstep after he got into a fight with two officers Jan. 6.
The audio and video captured by the two officers was inconsistent with some of the statements they made after the shooting. For instance, the officers reported Moore was charging at them, but body camera footage showed the opposite. Additionally, much of the exchange between Moore and the two officers would have been lost if not for audio, which captured their statements and state of mind.
“If you just saw them going up and down the stairs, and then this happened,” Deputy Public Defender Brian Pearlman previously told the Examiner about Moore’s case, “the cops could have said anything was said or anything had happened.”
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