SF to study impacts of outfitting all on-street officers with body cameras

Outfitting the 1,700 police officers patrolling San Francisco’s streets with body-mounted cameras could cost up to $3 million a year, Police Chief Greg Suhr said Wednesday as part of an ongoing debate about whether the devices could improve law enforcement.

Suhr said he is currently in discussions with the Police Officers Association about the use of 50 body-mounted cameras as a pilot program, which carries a cost ranging from $75,000 to $100,000 a year for data storage.

But Supervisor John Avalos has suggested the program go further, with every sworn officer wearing the devices to build greater community trust and improve accountability. He has called for a hearing, which is expected in the coming weeks, to examine the concept. It comes as the Police Department’s proposed budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1 is set to increase to $536 million from the current year’s $526 million. [jump]
Suhr said Wednesday during the board’s Budget and Finance Committee hearing that wider use of the cameras could raise a significant policy debate and also pointed to the issue of costs, which he said would range between $2 million and $3 million a year for data storage throughout the force.

“There would be a huge public conversation about 1,700 walking public-safety cameras both inside and outside people’s residences, businesses and on the street that were just running,” Suhr said. He noted that it was only recently that the board itself raised concerns about privacy rights related to the Police Department’s asking of bar owners to install surveillance cameras as a condition of obtaining an alcohol permit.

“A lot of smaller departments have gone to this,” Suhr said. “It could quite well be cost-prohibitive for the entire Police Department. Certainly the pilot is a good idea to see how it works.”

Avalos said while he has yet to determine if body-mounted cameras for all patrol officers was the best policy, he believes the cost of the devices could be offset by revenues resulting from a decrease in police brutality disputes.
The supervisor also countered Suhr’s suggestion that the body-mounted cameras would spark a heated privacy debate.

“There seems a lot more embracing of the body mounted cameras than the cameras on poles on our corners and intersections. That’s just anecdotally what I hear,” Avalos said.

One device every police officer will be equipped with is a smart phone. Suhr said that the effort began last year and should be completed next year. He noted that the devices keep officers on the streets 40 percent more of the time since they do not have to return to the district police station to enter reports.  

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