SFPD, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee and other city officials gathered at the new police headquarters to introduce body cams at a news conference April 30, 2015. (Mike Koozmin/S.F. Examiner)

Police Commission approves body camera policy for SFPD

The San Francisco Police Commission approved Wednesday night a new policy governing the use of body cameras that, most controversially, requires officers to make a statement before reviewing footage of critical incidents.

The decision paves the way for the implementation of body-worn cameras in the coming months.

Prior to approving the policy, several commissioners challenged what type of questioning an officer will endure before they can view footage of an incident.

“I really think it’s a slap in the face to the community,” Commissioner Petra DeJesus said about last-minutes changes to the policy regarding how officers are questioned. DeJesus said the changes seemed like a loophole to get around rules barring the review of footage immediately after a critical incident.

The sticking point in the draft policy had been over when officers are allowed to view camera footage following critical incidents.

Back in December the commission voted on its final version, and in a compromise gave viewing discretion to the chief. That’s because the commission has oversight of whoever is chief, and can call that person to the mat if the discretion is misused. At that point, the only step left was to finalize the policy in meet and confer negotiations with the police union.

But Wednesday night, the commission was presented with a policy that had been changed in the meet and confer process between The City’s negotiator and the Police Officer’s Association.

The POA, which had always argued officers should be allowed to view footage before making a statement to investigators, agreed to alter their position. But some questioned to what degree that agreement was a compromise rather than a loophole.

The changes made in meet and confer now require officers to give statements in certain incidents – police shootings, in-custody deaths and criminal matters – before they are allowed to view body camera footage and then make a subsequent statement.

The problem with the new version, said De Jesus, is the vagueness around what kind of statement officers will be forced to make. “This is vague. It’s broad. What is this initial statement?” she asked. “I just don’t know what this means. I don’t want to use the word ‘worthless,’ but…”

Interim Chief Toney Chaplin tried to reassure the troubled commissioner, to no avail.

“You don’t answer these questions, you won’t see that video,” said Chaplin in a pantomime of what the investigator might say to an officer.

Commissioner Victor Hwang said while he trusts Chaplin to make sure the process works as he described it, he can’t be sure the next chief will live up to such promises.

“I don’t see there will be back-and-forth questioning,” said Hwang about the language governing what an officer must say before being allowed to view the footage. “I don’t know why the POA gets to change what the commission has decided.”

But Commissioner Thomas Mazzucco said the new policy marked a real compromise. ”It looks like the POA gave more ground,” he said.

John Crew, a former ACLU lawyer, disagreed, saying the process seems to have been swallowed in the “black hole of meet and confer,” therefore driven by the POA instead of the commission.

Nevertheless, some noted the changes aligned with what community groups had asked for.

“This is closer to what community groups agreed to in the first place,” said Commissioner Joe Marshall, referring to the months-long policy-crafting process.

Several speakers, however, disagreed with claims by The City’s negotiator and Marshall that the new version was closer to what civil liberty groups had initially asked for.

Alan Schlosser, an ACLU lawyer, said his organization’s position on the specific policy had been misrepresented, and that officers should make a full and complete statement and only after be allowed to view the footage and make a supplemental statement. The new policy, he added, would only increase the distrust of police.

If the policy was voted down, the negotiating process would have to restart, and could further stall the camera’s rollout, warned The City negotiator. Even worse, he added, the process could go to arbitration.

In the end, worries about the new policy did not convince a majority of commissioners, many of whom said they had waited long enough and wanted body cameras on the streets as soon as possible.

“I trust the meet and confer process,” said Commissioner Sonia Melara, who added that policies are meant to be general, not specific. “Let’s put these cameras on the street and start to test them.”

Still, even Commissioner Julius Turman, who voted in favor of the new policy, said the last minute changes troubled him.

Despite a failed effort by DeJesus to table the vote in order to alter the language at issue, the policy passed 5-2.

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