Sheriff’s deputies working in one of the County Jail facilities will be equipped with body cameras in an unprecedented move that is part of an effort to reform San Francisco’s scandal-plagued jail system, Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi said.
Mirkarimi’s announcement is a first for a California sheriff and could also put pressure on the Police Department, which has advocated for body cameras and plans to start a pilot program, but has said that giving all officers cameras may be too expensive.
Deputies are expected to begin using the cameras this year, although a start date has not been announced.
“There is no other [jail] system in the state with body cameras,” Mirkarimi told The San Francisco Examiner. “This move is a first for any county jail system in California. All the way around, this is a proper investment.”
Calls for local law enforcement to wear body cameras have come from progressive members of the Board of Supervisors and Public Defender Jeff Adachi, all of whom have said the cameras will encourage proper police conduct and reassure the public if and when a questionable incident occurs.
But that call, along with increased national attention on law enforcement’s use of force, has often not included deputies working in jails, which is one of the primary duties of San Francisco deputies.
The move by Mirkarimi comes soon after he announced that, upon his request, the FBI launched an investigation into allegations four sheriff’s deputies were staging fights inside the County Jail at the Hall of Justice.
“Our local law enforcement system must strive to provide greater transparency and accountability,” Mirkarimi said. “My belief is that the application of body cameras — combined with other personnel, training and policy reforms — become the tools that help foster a more durable trust with the public, inmates and their loved ones.”
The department did not ask the Board of Supervisors or Mayor Ed Lee for the funds to purchase body cameras, but instead found another source of money: discretionary funds in reserve. Since 2013, the sheriff has been requesting funds for such an effort.
The cost of the 30-camera pilot, to be used during both shifts at the jail, will be $50,000 initially. The funds come from the department’s material and supplies budget.
The deputy-staged fights were revealed last month after a Public Defender’s Office investigation revealed that at least four deputies in County Jail 4 were organizing fights between inmates and betting on the results. The allegations have prompted several investigations, which include an FBI inquiry and a District Attorney’s Office task force.
The department chose County Jail 4 because it has the most issues in the jail system and was the site of alleged staged fights. The cameras, Mirkarimi noted, can also protect deputies against unfounded allegations. “The spotlight about body cameras has been about the streets not prisons or jails,” he said. “Several steps will be happening concurrently: Our legal team is vetting new policy, engaging in meet and confer with unions, and processing through city purchasing. Ideally we’re starting in several months.”
Others in The City’s criminal justice system have called for body cameras in the past.
“We must also demand that law enforcement agencies begin using available technology, such as police body cameras, to improve transparency and accountability to the public they are sworn to serve,” Adachi said after the death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black man who was shot to death by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo., last year.
The Police Department, which has itself been caught up in a scandal over bigoted text messages, plans to launch its body camera pilot program. It plans to equip 50 plainclothes or undercover supervisors with the $679.99 Taser Axom cameras to use during searches.
Los Angeles has committed to issuing cameras to all its police officers. The first 800, which cost a total of more than $1.5 million, will be given to police this month. Equipping The City’s 7,000 officers with cameras, with possible federal grant dollars, is estimated to cost anywhere from $7 million to $9 million.