Months after equipping the first jail guards with body cameras in the wake of an inmate fight scandal at County Jail, San Francisco Sheriff Vicki Hennessy is seeking another $400,000 to pay for hundreds more of the devices.
The proposal would cover the costs of 400 body cameras for deputies at each of The City’s jail facilities as well as for deputies on patrol out of Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital, according to Chief Deputy Sheriff Paul Miyamoto.
Miyamoto said the proposal is the result of a successful pilot program that has reduced use-of-force incidents in the seventh-floor jail at the Hall of Justice since Hennessy rolled out 40 body cameras there last August.
“Wearing the cameras and actually documenting interactions between staff and inmates, it’s almost like de-escalation,” Miyamoto told the San Francisco Examiner. “It brings people’s tempers down a little bit.”
Between January and August 2017, Sheriff’s Department records show deputies at the Hall of Justice jail used force 327 times with an average of 47 times per month. The number of use-of-force incidents dropped to 160 between September and December 2017 with an average of 40 incidents a month.
The San Francisco Sheriff’s Department first sought body cameras under former Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi after allegations surfaced against three deputies in March 2015 for staging “gladiator-style” fights between jail inmates.
A criminal case against the trio is still in progress, with the preliminary hearing set for June. The City has since settled a lawsuit with the inmates involved in the scandal for $90,000.
Public Defender Jeff Adachi, who exposed the scandal, said body cameras are crucial for increasing the accountability of deputies. Jail can be “one of the most vulnerable places” for a person to be, Adachi said, “because if something does happen and your life is in danger, you can’t get help.”
“Any instances that occur in the jail — if you have a jail fight or a negative interaction or a fight between a sheriff and an inmate — body-worn cameras can be critical in determining what happened,” Adachi said.
Since the pilot program launched last August, Adachi said the Public Defender’s Office has yet to have a case involving a deputy’s body camera footage.
But Miyamoto said body cameras have been utilized in a few criminal investigations, to determine whether to proceed with discipline against a deputy for a use of force and “when there’s been fights in the jail.”
Miyamoto said a body camera review committee, including staff members, labor representatives and health officials, has met three times to vet footage since August and to review the draft policies and procedures for the use of the devices.
Under the draft policy, Miyamoto said deputies are not allowed to view body camera footage of “any action they themselves have taken” before writing a statement. However, deputies can view the footage before writing a statement on actions taken by others, such as in the case of two inmates fighting.
While noting the department still has to negotiate a final policy for the body cameras with the union, San Francisco Deputy Sheriff’s Association President Ken Lomba said the union supports the use of the devices.
“Body cameras are increasingly popular with deputies because they predominantly exonerate peace officers accused of frivolous charges and greatly assist in prosecuting suspects,” Lomba said.
Hennessy submitted the funding proposal to the Mayor’s Office in February. Mayor Mark Farrell will decide whether to fund the expanded body camera program in his June ballot proposal.
The late Mayor Ed Lee previously funded the pilot program for $40,000. Miyamoto said six deputies per shift wear the body cameras at the Hall of Justice jail. The Sheriff’s Department has also outfitted supervisors at City Hall with the body cameras to see how they interact with the public.
Editor’s Note: This story has been corrected to reflect that there were an average of 40 use-of-force incidents per month at the Hall of Justice jail between September and December 2017.
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