ACLU opposition to LAPD body cameras may impact SF debate

As San Francisco officials debate when police should be allowed to review body camera footage, the American Civil Liberties Union has come out against the Los Angeles Police Department’s body camera program on the cusp of its launch.

The reason for the ACLU’s opposition — LAPD allows their officers to review camera footage before speaking to investigators — is central to the debate in San Francisco over the use of police body cameras.

On Wednesday night, the San Francisco Police Commission’s working group handed over its draft policy to the full commission, which will have the final say over the policy.

But members of the working group — including private lawyers, police unions, a representative from the Public Defender’s Office and The City’s police oversight body — disagreed about reviewing footage.

Whether the ACLU will oppose The City’s yet-to-be-finalized policy remains to be seen. But ACLU officials said the group’s official stance is that police should not be able to review footage of critical incidents before they make statements.

“For body cameras to be effective community tools for transparency and accountability, the police cannot be allowed to undermine investigations by reviewing footage before they make initial statements. The Police Commission should properly address this important issue in the final policy,” said Nicole A. Ozer, Technology and Civil Liberties Policy Director for the ACLU of California.

The San Francisco Police Department and union representatives said officers should get to look at any footage before they make a statement to investigators.

But police oversight groups said officers should be barred from such review of footage since it might muddy their memories.

Rebecca Young, with the Public Defender’s Office, and Joyce Hicks,
who heads the Office of Citizen Complaints, said they back a policy that bars officers from viewing footage when there is an incident that might lead to discipline or accusations of misconduct.

“It’s not a one-size-fits-all [approach],” Hicks said. Instead, when and if officers get to view camera footage should depend on the circumstances.

Young said officers should be able to view footage before they write their reports in normal circumstances, but not when there might be a situation where misconduct occurred.

But Chief Greg Suhr disagreed, arguing that such a policy would set in place mistrust of officers.

“If you put these on the officers with the message that we don’t trust them in the first place, we’re not getting off on the right foot,” he said.

Police Officers Association President Martin Halloran said that the union lawyers will tell officers not to give voluntary statements if they are not allowed to view the footage first.

While officers must speak to Internal Affairs investigators who are heading administrative inquiries or face firing, any statements compiled would be inadmissible if the matter becomes criminal, Halloran said.

“Our members are not forced to produce that statement,” he said, adding that the common practice is for them to voluntarily do so.

The union still has yet to go through the meet and confer process in which they will get to negotiate over body camera use no matter what the commission finally decides, said a union lawyer Wednesday night.

The ACLU was invited but did not take part in the working group’s public meetings. Instead they sent a letter to the department critiquing the process, said working group chair Cmdr. Bob Moser.

But the majority of the group took issue with that, he said.

The Police Commission has scheduled two public meetings to hear from the public on the policy and then plans to make final tweaks to the policy that will govern how police are to use body cameras. The first public meeting is scheduled for Sept. 16.

After several years of foot dragging at the police department, Mayor Ed Lee announced in April he would give more than $6 million to equip roughly 1,800 active police officers with cameras to increase public trust in the department after a series of scandals that have marred its image.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.


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