The San Francisco Police Commission voted today to allow police officers to view footage from their body cameras before writing their incident reports unless the officer is the subject of an investigation or the footage captures an officer-involved shooting or an in-custody death.
In those cases, the police chief or someone of his choosing must decide whether to allow the officer to review his or her footage before making a report. Body cameras will be rolled out sometime in 2016, but a date has not yet been chosen.
Even as the Commission deliberated and heard public comment, much of which concerned cases of police brutality and officer-involved shootings, Police Chief Greg Suhr was responding to a scene in the Bayview, where police officers had shot and killed a man.
Police officers at the meeting universally argued that officers should have access to footage before writing reports, calling it a tool to improve the accuracy of their reports.
“This program was presented to us as a tool,” said Elia Lewin-Tankel, an officer from Mission Station. But with restrictions, “it will create a divisiveness that I don’t think is necessary. There’s enough division at this point.”
“When I was just a little baby police officer, I was told that I shall, I must review every available evidence before making a report,” said SFPD Officer John Evans. He said reversing that stance indicated a lack of trust in police officers.
“If you don’t trust me, I’ll go.” Evans said. “It’s patently ridiculous not to review evidence.”
Deputy Chief Hector Sainez said that current policy is to allow officers to review available evidence and footage before writing their reports.
“It helps trigger something where they actually provide more facts,” Sainez said.
Commissioner Thomas Mazzucco echoed Sainez and many police officers when he said that officers could not be expected to give complete and perfectly accurate reports after traumatic situations because stress narrows their focus and inhibits memory.
“I know what takes place during an [officer-involved] shooting,” Mazzucco said. “Their perception narrows. Their vision narrows to about 17 percent…Unless you’ve been there, you can’t understand what they’ve been through.”
Commissioner Petra De Jesus maintained that officers should not be able to review footage before writing their reports.
“People are saying, ‘Well, that’s not the way we do it.’ Well, things need to change,” De Jesus said.
Public Defender Jeff Adachi joined several members of the public in asking that the commission restric officers’ ability to watch body camera footage. He and others argued that an officer who is confronted with a reality on tape that differs with his or her recollection of an incident might be inclined to fabricate a justification for their actions.
“What we are after here is the pursuit of truth by examining the discrepancies between what’s in a video and what’s in the report,” said Tracy Rosenberg of the Media Alliance.
As Adachi pointed out in a Chronicle editorial, it’s unclear whether body camera footage from Alameda County Sheriff’s deputies will be released in the case of Stanislav Petrov, the man who was severely beaten in a Mission District alley.
Deputy Public Defender Rebecca Young commended the commission on their legislation, but recommended that officers also be barred from viewing their body camera footage after incidents with a “reportable use of force.” That clause was not added.
“In a situation like with Mr. Petrov…these officers would be allowed to view that video [before making a report],” Adachi pointed out at the hearing.
“No teacher would let you view an exam before the test,” said former mayoral write-in candidate John Fitch during public comment.
“It’s a loophole waiting to be exploited,” another commenter said.
The decision, not officially final, will send the body camera policy to the Department of Human Resources and a police union for review, after which it will be returned to the commission for final adoption. The draft policy also includes a requirement that footage be retained by the SFPD for at least 60 days and not be otherwise deleted without prior approval. Under the policy, footage will also be subject to periodic and random audits. Officers must also document the reason for turning off their body camera, and, where feasible, notify members of the public that they are being recorded.