The fatal shooting of Alejandro Nieto, a man who possessed a Taser that was mistaken for a firearm who was killed in Bernal Heights Park, produced a backlash of community anger toward the San Francisco Police Department. It was the first thing Sup. John Avalos mentioned when he called for a hearing on equipping officers with body-mounted video cameras at the April 8 Board of Supervisors meeting.
Avalos knew Nieto, and the incident struck close to home. He mentioned another recent incident of police violence at City College of San Francisco in which officers targeted student protesters; video footage from a bystander shows an officer releasing his nightstick, making a fist, and throwing a punch at someone already being restrained.
“These incidents show that there’s a great deal of work we need to do … to build trust between members of the community and the police department,” Avalos said. “These incidents involved people I knew and it almost makes me feel how widespread the problem can be.”
Police body-mounted cameras have been tried in New York, Los Angeles, New Orleans and other places as a way to shore up police accountability and provide a record of officer interactions with targeted suspects, Avalos said, and there is support for the technology both among law enforcement communities and civil liberties watchdog organizations.
“Many police support these cameras because they can help protect police officers against false accusations,” Avalos noted. “Watchdog groups support police body-mounted cameras because they can help reduce incidents of police misconduct. The [American Civil Liberties Union] supports the cameras because they allow the public to monitor the government, instead of the other way around.”
Avalos’ request called for a review of the feasibility of equipping police officers with body cams, taking concerns about cost and privacy into consideration, plus a cost-benefit analysis to show how the cost of the cameras would compare with potential savings from reductions in citizen complaints and use-of-force lawsuits.
SFPD spokesperson Sgt. Danielle Newman noted that the SFPD is already in contract negotiations for a pilot program that would equip 50 plainclothes sergeants with body-mounted cameras. The program would be funded through a federal grant, Newman said, and the department has not yet received the cameras or hashed out policies spelling out how long data would be stored, how often they would be used, or whether officers would be able to switch them on and off at will.
Newman said the pilot program grew out of allegations that undercover officers had stolen property and violated the civil rights of SRO residents during searches of their units, incidents that were initially brought to light by the San Francisco Public Defender and more recently became the subject of a federal indictment.
“When Chief Suhr took over, he was looking at ways to ensure that those things don’t happen again,” Newman explained. The department was under the leadership of former Police Chief George Gascon when the officers now facing charges were caught on film by SRO surveillance cameras.
Despite the planned pilot, Newman said Suhr was less certain about the idea of equipping 1,500 to 2,000 officers with body cameras, as Avalos’ request is geared toward.
“The concern with the chief is that with San Francisco, we haven’t been able to get crime cams put up,” she said, let alone having all officers record all police contact with the public. “That’s something that would need to be ironed out.”
Newman added that there were cost and logistical concerns associated with storage of bulk data generated by the cameras.
Rachel Lederman, an attorney with the National Lawyers Guild who represented Occupy protester Scott Olsen in a police misconduct case that left Olsen with lasting brain injuries and resulted in a $4.5 million settlement, said she was skeptical of body cams as a “quick fix” for police violence.
Oakland police officers are equipped with personal digital recording devices, she noted, but in the incident the left Olsen permanently injured, “there were 11 police officers with less-lethal weapons who were supposed to have PDRDs on – but didn’t.”
Lederman said that based on her experience, the footage that is captured on body cams is kept under lock and key by police, and remains hidden to all but doggedly persistent criminal attorneys. In practice, “journalists and affected people can’t get it without a lawyer,” she said, because police departments tend to withhold the footage with the excuse that it pertains to ongoing investigations.
In order to serve as an effective tool for holding law enforcement accountable, Lederman said, body-cam videos “have to be produced under the Public Records Act.”
Lederman added that the video quality tends to be low, officers can turn them on and off at will, and “they try to use them as evidence against people they are arresting.”
Still, a study in Rialto, California that was undertaken by a group of Cambridge University researchers determined that police use-of-force and complaints against police officers declined dramatically after officers were outfitted with the recording devices.
"The findings suggest more than a 50 percent reduction in the total number of incidents of use-of-force compared to control-conditions, and nearly ten times more citizens’ complaints in the 12-months prior to the experiment," the authors concluded.
Lederman believes those findings are somewhat misleading, however. “Rialto has 66 police officers,” she pointed out. “It’s not really comparable to San Francisco or Oakland.”