Getting the SFPD camera ready

The first group of San Francisco police officers to be outfitted with body cameras is now patrolling city streets, a long awaited development that offers the opportunity for increased transparency and accountability of how officers interact with people in the course of their jobs.

Over the past two weeks about 70 officers have begun to wear cameras on city streets. Ingleside and Bayview stations will be the first two of San Francisco’s 10 police station houses to be fully equipped with body-worn cameras in coming weeks. Every officer in The City should be wearing cameras by the end of the year, according to the department.

It’s been more than a year since Mayor Ed Lee announced — in May 2015 — that funds for 1,800 body cameras would be made available to the Police Department. Since that promise was made, several fatal shootings by San Francisco police — as well as numerous incidents across the country — have intensified pressure to equip officers with cameras. Many of the fatal shootings, both here and in other cities, have been partially or fully captured on video.

On July 6, Philando Castile was killed by a police officer during a traffic stop in Falcon Heights, Minn., in an incident recorded by his girlfriend and livestreamed on Facebook.

In San Francisco, the fatal police shooting of Luis Gongora in the Mission District on April 7 was caught on surveillance video. However, much of the incident was out of the camera’s frame, which left the public with few details about the shooting.

Video footage of the shooting of Mario Woods by San Francisco officers last December captured by witnesses helped publicize the incident but didn’t resolve whether the officers acted properly. Still, the fallout from that shooting — and its capture on video — was a major factor pushing city leaders to launch the police reforms underway.

Advocates for officer-worn cameras argue that the devices will shed needed light on the often chaotic and tense moments of confrontation between police and suspects that can turn deadly. The goal — and it is a laudable one — is to make the department more accountable and less lethal in encounters with the public, and in doing so to protect both citizens and officers from unnecessary harm.

It is unfortunate that so many recent killings and scandals — which have included a series of racist and bigoted text messages from officers becoming public, obstruction from the police union to allow substantive change, and the removal of a police chief for lack of discipline and oversight — were required to take common sense steps to reform a damaged department.

The good news is that cameras are now filming. But now comes the hard part. How will the footage be handled?

Those expecting video footage from officers’ cameras to be made public as a matter of course — in an attempt to give the public an unfettered and uncensored view into police work at its more harrowing — will likely be sorely disappointed. This surveillance material will become highly contested and bitterly fought over evidence. As it stands, the SFPD will decide when and how to release videos, and it will be up to the public to fight to enlarge that criteria to see the videos it feels it has a right to see.

The SFPD needs to establish a clear and fair video release policy — one that protects ongoing investigations but also rebuilds trust in a skeptical public. Any perceived lack of transparency in how the department handles disclosing sensitive information to the public would severely hamper the mission of reform that Acting Police Chief Toney Chaplin and many others in the force have vowed to enact to turn around the troubled department.

And the public, in turn, must rid itself of expectations that such footage, when it is made public, will resolve all grievances. It will be a useful tool, to be sure, but like any tool, an imperfect one. Its effectiveness will vary depending on the circumstance and the person using it.

For example, in his first two weeks of using a body camera on the streets, San Francisco police Sgt. John Conway told the San Francisco Examiner last week that his camera sometimes failed to record, and, when it did, didn’t always capture everything he expected.

“It’s a great idea,” he said, “but the limitations — I would hope that the public is aware.”

Last Sunday, for instance, Conway explained he was near Union Square when he came around a corner to find a man with methamphetamine. His camera was on, but it didn’t catch the activity Conway saw.

And then, there will be times, Conway said, when “you may think that you’ve activated it,” but, it turns out, it was never turned on.

Michael Howerton is Editor-in-Chief of the San Francisco Examiner.

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