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SFPD aims to fix body-worn camera policy issue that threatens integrity of police shooting probes

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A proposal to amend the police department’s body-worn camera policy includes the disabling of a mute button on the cameras. (Jessica Christian/2016 S.F. Examiner)

San Francisco police officers under investigation for shooting and killing a suspect are currently allowed to view any video of the incident before speaking with the investigators who will decide whether to press charges against them.

But that could change under proposed amendments to the San Francisco Police Department’s body-worn camera policy from Police Chief Bill Scott, who is seeking to protect the integrity of investigations into police shootings by entities like the District Attorney’s Office.

Scott has proposed that officers only be able to view their own body-worn camera footage before making a statement to investigators. The concern is that the current policy allows officers to base their statements on the perspectives of other officers or security cameras at the scene rather than their own.

“The feeling is this protects the integrity of the investigation where officers will be able to view their own video camera and not be influenced by other angles or video camera footage,” Scott said Wednesday night at the Police Commission.

The Police Commission unanimously approved the proposal at the meeting, as well as other proposed revisions to the body-worn camera policy like the disabling of a mute button that lets officers record video without sound.

The Police Commission approved the body-worn camera policy in June 2016 after months of meet-and-confer with the San Francisco Police Officers Association. The policy allows officers to view body-camera footage after giving an initial statement but before being interviewed by investigators.

The latest proposal also strengthens the language requiring officers to turn on the devices during a range of incidents, including arrests, vehicle pursuits and shootings, or face potential discipline.

The proposed changes will next be reviewed at another meet-and-confer between the SFPD and the SFPOA. The police union did not respond to a request for comment Thursday afternoon.

Whether an officer can view only their own body-worn camera footage could have an impact on investigations like the those into the police shooting of 42-year-Keita O’Neill during a pursuit in the Bayview on Dec. 1, 2017.

Under the current body-worn camera policy, rookie Officer Christopher Samayoa would have been permitted to view security camera footage that police released of him shooting O’Neill as well as his own body-camera footage before giving a statement to investigators.

The current body-worn camera policy says that officers “shall have an opportunity to review any audio or video recording(s) depicting the incident… prior to being subject to an interview.”

The proposal specifies that an officer can review “his or her own” body-worn camera footage before an interview.

John Crew, a former attorney with the ACLU of Northern California, said “there’s no investigative purpose served” by showing officers their own or other footage prior to an interview.

“You don’t poison their recollection before you interview them,” Crew said. “The only reason for officers to be exposed to the footage before they give a statement is so that they can come up with an explanation consistent with the video.”

Police shootings in San Francisco are reviewed and investigated by the SFPD, Department of Police Accountability and District Attorney’s Office new Office Independent Investigations Bureau.

Max Szabo, a spokesperson for the District Attorney’s Office, said the proposed changes will “help ensure the objectivity and independence of our [police shooting] investigations.”

“The bottom line is that a statement can be significantly influenced if the evidence is viewed before an interview,” Szabo said. “That’s just not best practices.”

As to when, or if, the proposed changes will go into effect, Crew noted that the previous meet-and-confer with the SFPOA over the body-worn camera policy was a prolonged process that “watered-down” the policy.


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