Police officers in San Francisco will soon wear chest-mounted cameras when serving search warrants. This will be beneficial for everyone involved and should highlight the advantages of having evidence when the actions of public safety employees are called into question.
The Police Department will equip supervisors with cameras to be turned on just before officers enter a residence to serve a search warrant. This policy is a response to 2011 accusations by the Public Defender's Office that officers illegally entered single-room occupancy hotel rooms and later falsified reports to justify the searches.
More than one story often emerges when citizens and law enforcement officials interact. With video, after-the-fact observers will have a much more precise record of exactly what transpired, unclouded by the emotions or faulty memories that often affect people on both sides.
The Police Department has not jumped blindly into giving officers cameras. It took a year to roll out a limited program that will be used by a small number of supervisors in certain situations. Police Chief Greg Suhr doesn't rule out using cameras in other situations, but said his department would first have to change its policies — a public process likely to take time.
The potential upside of using cameras in police work has been highlighted by the city of Rialto in Southern California, which started doing so in February 2012. According to an article in The New York Times, police there have seen an 88 percent decline in complaints since then, and a 60 percent drop in the use of force by police officers. It should not surprise anyone to learn that everyone behaves a little better when they know their actions are being recorded on video.
And such video recording should not stop with the police. During the response to the Asiana Airlines crash at San Francisco International Airport, one city firefighter evidently used a helmet-mounted camera to capture video of crucial moments in which a firefighting rig struck a passenger. This video will help investigators determine how some decisions were made on that day — crucial evidence free from the adrenaline-fueled horror of that tragic event and the brave work of first responders.
The release of that footage, first reported by the San Francisco Chronicle, initially drew a rebuke from the Fire Department, which noted that the footage violated its policy. But the department later said it will reconsider the use of cameras by its officers.
Like the police, the Fire Department should devise some clear-cut rules for how and when its personnel record video. There are undoubtedly many valid privacy concerns surrounding such footage, particularly issues involving images of victims.
But just because such video is taken and made available to fire officials does not mean that it should necessarily be released to the public. In fact, one can envision many occasions in which such video should not be released — as is the case with various police reports and court records that are permanently sealed or heavily redacted before being made public.
On a near-daily basis, firefighters and police officers must make split-second decisions to protect the lives of regular citizens. Video footage can capture these situations for future review to help police and fire officials better train their staffs and devise policies that benefit society.
In short, the era of public safety video recording is upon us. And while privacy concerns should remain central in the minds of anyone working to craft policies regarding the use of such video, the benefits to the public of such recordings clearly outweigh the risks.