As San Francisco and communities across the country grapple with ways to improve the relationship between law enforcement officers and the people they are sworn to serve and protect, the conversation increasingly turns to the use of body cameras. Body cameras are small cameras mounted on the eyeglasses or front of a uniform, set to record an officer's interactions with others in the performance of duties.
I believe body cameras, when deployed thoughtfully, have the potential to be an invaluable tool for enhancing law enforcement transparency and accountability. But cameras will never replace the fundamentals of good management.
Accountability will always start with the development and clear communication to staff of expectations and the providing of training specific to those expectations. But where cameras will be particularly valuable is in monitoring staff compliance and taking appropriate action when expectations are not met.
As important as the actual cameras is the quality of the protocols and policies developed to govern their use. To ensure that they are being used in a way that contributes to increased accountability while mitigating potential issues around tampering, privacy, and misuse of the data, some of the questions regarding implementation that will need to be answered include:
• When does recording begin? How much contextual information leading up to interaction is appropriate and necessary?
• How do we ensure that recording equipment isn’t tampered with?
• What protocols do we use to make sure data downloads and storage are secure, and how long do we store the recordings?
• How do we decide who has access to footage and how do we protect crime victims who may be part of the footage?
• What resources are required to manage the camera program? What are the costs of the contracts with the vendors for the cameras and data storage?
This is only a short list of the items for consideration. Involving stakeholders from within the department ranks, as well as civilian staff and legal professionals, is essential to developing an implementation plan consistent with “best practices.” This is especially important when considering using body cameras inside jails.
Even though the courts have ruled there is no expectation of privacy in jail, preserving a sense of personal privacy in a decidedly “un-private” environment presents a different set of considerations compared to those for cameras used primarily in public places. Thus, communicating the presence of body-worn cameras and protocols for their use to the incarcerated population, as well as to contract staff and others who regularly access the jails ,will also be necessary.
The overwhelming majority of deputies take pride in following procedure and treating people with respect and, as such, they will welcome this tool as one that can validate their good work. The remaining few, who may not be in agreement with the spirit of the use of body cameras, must be required to follow the letter of the regulations around their use or be held accountable.
As a 30-year Sheriff deputy and former interim Sheriff who developed and implemented many successful initiatives within the Sheriff's Department, I look forward to the careful implementation of the use of body cameras.
Vicki Hennessy served as Interim Sheriff in 2012, and is a candidate for San Francisco Sheriff this November.