San Francisco police Sgt. John Conway has a new tool in his shed, so to speak: a camera strapped to his chest.
He’s noticed little difference in his daily routine other than some members of the public making faces and waving at the camera.
“It’s business as usual,” he said. “We just have one more tool.”
The body-worn cameras for officers come after long delays and may be the first major example the public gets to see of increased accountability from a police force that has been criticized for the shooting deaths of three people since last December.
Still, others have warned that the cameras won’t eliminate concerns of biased policing within the department and a lack of oversight.
“Body cameras won’t solve all the problems of racial profiling and use of force, but with the right policy, they can be a tool for accountability,” noted the ACLU Northern California branch on its website.
The first test may come after the next critical incident occurs, said Conway, adding that thus far the public seems to see the cameras as a novelty.
Some people talk to the camera at his chest instead of looking at his face, and others will literally “try and dance and do other stuff in front of the camera,” he added.
Over the past two weeks, the Tenderloin Station sergeant is one of the first — of about 70 officers — to wear the cameras on city streets. That group of officers, including Conway and about five others at his station, will train the rest of the force, who will soon be equipped with cameras.
“Currently there are about 70 members [sergeants and officers] are equipped with body cameras,” San Francisco police spokesperson Officer Grace Gatpandan said.
While there are a few limitations to the cameras, police are still becoming familiar with the technology.
“They are getting acquainted with the hardware and software and will be providing feedback to the Body Worn Camera Unit and Training Division on their experiences,” Gatpandan added.
So far, Conway said the camera has a few activation issues and doesn’t always capture everything he’s expected.
“People are gonna expect it to show more,” he said. “It’s a great idea, but the limitations — I would hope that the public is aware.”
On Sunday, for instance, Conway was at Tillman Place east of Union Square and came around a corner to find a man with methamphetamine and a pipe. But the camera didn’t catch what Conway saw.
“I wrote the report but it didn’t record … what I expected,” he said. “If it captures it, good. If it doesn’t, oh well.” Conway added that the camera will never record everything since it doesn’t follow your eye movement.
“[A] camera mounted on your head might be better,” he joked.
There are a couple issues with the audio recording correctly as well as the camera not always turning on as expected, he said.
“You may think that you’ve activated it,” he said, but you haven’t.
Other officers say they are also experiencing glitches similar to the ones Conway described.
All of these issues are being reported back to headquarters, he said. “It’s still tough trying to get used to wearing it,” he added.
Body camera origins
Mayor Ed Lee announced in May 2015 that he would deliver funds for 1,800 body cameras for the Police Department in an effort to build trust and transparency. The Police Commission, along with a wide array of community input, has since crafted and passed a body-worn camera policy.
The most contentious part of the policy revolved around when officers would be allowed to review footage following a critical incident. The policy allows officers to view the footage after making a brief statement on the incident.
The cameras are just one part of a multipronged effort to make the department more accountable and less lethal in encounters with the public.
A recent fatal police shooting, the killing of Luis Gongora in the Mission District on April 7, was caught on surveillance video. However, much of the incident was out of the camera’s frame, which left the public with few details about the shooting other than what police have said. If the officers involved had been wearing cameras, that may not have been the case.
Following the high-profile shooting of Mario Woods, who was killed by officers last December, video footage captured by witnesses made all the difference in publicizing the incident.
The fallout from that shooting — and its capture on video — was a major factor pushing city leaders to launch the police reforms currently underway, Police Commission President Suzy Loftus said previously.
Ingleside and Bayview stations will be the first two of the Police Department’s 10 station houses to be fully equipped with body-worn cameras.