Cop body cameras would be a beneficial watchdog

Jeff Chiu/2011 ap file photoOne police department saw an 88 percent drop in citizen complaints and a 60 percent falloff in use of force by officers.

The most revolutionary police equipment isn't made of Kevlar. It cannot break down doors or give you night vision, but it protects officers and civilians alike.

It is a miniaturized video camera and microphone, small enough to attach to a collar and capable of capturing every detail of police interactions with citizens. For the public, it is a shield against excessive force. For officers, it is armor against false accusations or vindictive lawsuits.

San Francisco, which already provides body cameras to police supervisors, must now decide whether to extend them to rank-and-file officers. City supervisors will hold a hearing on the issue at today's Neighborhood Services and Safety Committee. Officers in Oakland, Union City, Los Gatos, Gilroy, Brentwood, Vallejo and Campbell already wear chest-mounted cameras.

There is no doubt body cameras improve police conduct. In the first year after the Rialto Police Department instituted them, use of force by officers dropped 60 percent and citizen complaints fell 88 percent. While having an objective record is part of the camera's benefit, studies say the effect of third-party observers on behavior plays a major role. Put simply, knowing their conduct is being recorded keeps people honest.

Of course, body cameras alone cannot solve police misconduct. Strict policy on charging, using and uploading data from the devices is essential. In 2012, high school senior Alan Blueford was fatally shot by an Oakland police officer. Some witnesses to the chaotic scene said they saw the teenager reaching for or holding a gun. Still others said there was no gun, and he was simply trying to stand up after falling. But the public will never know which version of the story is accurate, because the officer had apparently turned off the camera on his lapel.

A recent federal survey of 63 law enforcement agencies using body cameras found nearly a third of the departments had no written policy on the devices. That also raises privacy concerns, as police often enter homes during the worst moments of citizens' lives. San Francisco's policy must contain protections and penalties against leaking footage to sites like YouTube or selling it to sites like TMZ.

With the right planning and protections, body cameras can shed light on clashes that leave citizens confused and anguished. Body-camera footage would have provided critical information in the Ferguson, Mo., killing of Michael Brown. It could have provided answers closer to home, in the fatal shooting of Alex Nieto.

The camera is an objective witness, capable of implicating or exonerating suspects and police officers alike. We need its transparency and objectivity in San Francisco.

Jeff Adachi is the public defender for San Francisco.

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