Whether San Francisco police officers will be allowed to review body camera footage before making statements about incidents involving the use of force will be up to the discretion of the police chief, the police commission decided Wednesday night.
The six affirmative votes and one abstention was a sort of compromise that had not been presented before, but seemed to bridge a gap on the controversial issue.
“I like the carve out. I call it a safety valve. The chief does answer to us,” commissioner Thomas Mazzucco said. “Officers have to have that opportunity.”
Police and their union had pushed for a policy allowing officers to always review footage before making statements.
The main alternative proposal, which is backed by civil libertarians and others that would have barred officers from reviewing footage of critical incidents before making statements, was defeated.
That proposal would have allowed an officer to view the footage after he or she made a statement and wrote a supplemental report, which has been opposed by police and their union.
Mayor Ed Lee announced earlier this year that he would give more than $6 million to equip the roughly 1,700 active police officers in San Francisco with cameras to increase public trust in law enforcement after a series of scandals that have marred the department’s image. Since that announcement, a working group has put together a draft policy that was discussed by the commission and in several public hearings on the matter.
The issue of when and if police officers should be allowed to review footage had been the main sticking point during the public comment period, pitting police and their union against civil liberties organizations and others.
On Wednesday night, the commission considered several different approaches to the issue of reviewing footage before it voted on the policy as a whole.
Over the course of the last three months, three different approaches to how such protocol should govern policy conduct have been voiced by everyone from the police union to the American Civil Liberties Union.
One of those views posits that police should not be able to review footage of critical incidents before they make statements, but should be allowed to review footage in the course of normal investigations.
“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.
Others have agreed, pointing out that officers reviewing footage might muddy their memories.
Rebecca Young, with the Public Defender’s Office, and Joyce Hicks, who heads the Office of Citizen Complaints, 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 at a public forum before the Wednesday meeting.
Instead, if and when officers are allowed 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.
That idea has been opposed by the San Francisco Police Department and union representatives, who argue officers should get to look at any footage before they make a voluntary statement to investigators. If officers are not allowed to look at the footage before making a statement, the union has said it will advise its members to say nothing.
An officer can be compelled by a superior to make a statement, but such a statement would not be admissible in court. Police and their union have also said that reviewing footage from all evidence collected, including body cameras, is another part of their investigative work and should be included.
Another position voiced over the last several months is that officers should not be able to review any footage before making statement. That policy was not brought before the commission Wednesday.
The policy is not final until the meet and confer process with the San Francisco Police Officers Association is complete.
Six months after the policy is finalized, the commission plans an evaluation of the policy. On Wednesday night, the union said it wouldn’t oppose the policy.
A date for body camera rollout has yet to be announced.
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