As of today, all patrolling officers at the Mission District’s police station will be outfitted with body cameras.
Mission Station has received 150 to 160 cameras, according to San Francisco Police Department spokesperson Carlos Manfredi.
A total of 112 patrol officers, 23 sergeants and five lieutenants are now mandated to wear the cameras strapped to their chests during most interactions with the public.
The station’s captain, Daniel Perea, said that he believes the cameras “are a good thing” for the department, and will help to ensure transparency in police encounters with civilians while reducing complaints against officers.
“My hope is people will consider their actions knowing that [they are] being recorded,” he said. “Visual and audio will be captured and provide an objective documentation of what occurred.”
Body cameras have been presented as one solution to simmering community mistrust of the police department and a push for greater police accountability following a spate of police shootings in recent years.
Two of the recent shootings, one claiming the life of a homeless man carrying a knife in April and the 2015 shooting of 20-year-old Guatemalan immigrant who also had a knife, involved officers stationed at Mission Station and have sparked local protests against police brutality.
The department purchased 1,800 cameras alongside cloud-based storage system for the footage in a multi-million dollar contract with manufacturer Taser International. The first batch of cameras was deployed last month at Bayview and Ingleside Stations, said Manfredi.
A complete rollout of the program across San Francisco is expected to be completed by Thanksgiving.
But the devices’ functionality and the policy that governs them leaves room for concern from those working towards internal reform of the department.
“It’s not a cure all,” said David Elliott Lewis, a trainer for SFPD’s Crisis Intervention Team Training Program. However, he said, “the accountability that comes from body cameras will provide the incentive to invest extra time and effort during the de-escalation process.”
While Lewis believes that body cameras in San Francisco will have “similar benefits” as seen in other departments – Oakland Police Department has seen a decrease in complaints and use of use of force incidents since body cameras were deployed there in 2010 – Lewis foresees concerns arising about the public’s access the footage.
In June, the Police Commission approved a department general order that outlines policy around the use of the cameras, as well as how footage is to be stored and accessed.
“The department has a lot of discretion on when they can release what – the general order gives all power to the department [regarding] releasing its footage to the public,” said Lewis.
According to the policy, the department may withhold footage if disclosure would compromise the safety of a witness, if an investigation is ongoing, or if the captured footage could violate local, state or federal laws around privacy rights.
“There is nothing in the [policy] that says it’s released unless compelled by court order,” said Lewis. “There should be an easier pathway for [the public] to view it.”
The policy also allows officers to review the footage before writing incident reports – even if the officers are involved in critical incidents, like a shooting. In those instances, the officers are required to give an initial statement before reviewing their recordings, and policy requires a supervising officer to confiscate the camera in the meantime.
Paired with department issued smartphones, officers are able to watch their recordings in real time, said Manfredi, but the cameras are currently unable to livestream back to police headquarters – although this could very soon become a function of the body worn cameras, according to their manufacturer.
“The officer could detach [the] camera in a shooting situation and look at footage on [their] phone while [placing] the camera around a corner,” he explained.
Filming is authorized in most situations, ranging from routine traffic stops to hostile civilian interactions, except for three – officers are prohibited from recording any interactions that could compromise the identity of sexual assault and child abuse survivors, confidential informants and undercover operatives, or during strip searches.
Police are not required to obtain permission from civilians in the line of filming, but should attempt to notify them whenever possible.
Though turned on for the entirety of an officer’s shift, the cameras are “not recording every second,” said Perea. “It’s under certain circumstances that they are to be recording.”
Officers will be required to start and end recordings manually in situations that are authorized under the general order, but policies around department procedure in addressing instances in which officers forget to hit “record” are currently not in place.
“It’s already happened around country when officers involved in shootings have not turned on [the] camera,” said Lewis, suggesting that an “engineering solution” could be wireless activation of the device when officers “enter or exit a police car.”
In some cities, police departments have deployed body worn cameras that are designed to begin recording automatically when officers begin running or when police car sirens are turned on.
“[In San Francisco] it’s totally at the discretion of the officers to remember to turn their cameras on,” said Lewis. “ Human memory is fallible.”
At Mission Station, Perea said that he along with supervising sergeants and lieutenants will be tasked with ensuring that officers comply with policy.
Training on the new devices began ahead of the rollout on September 19 and consisted of a daylong, two-part class versing the officers in “policy and functionality.”
“The police officers here are very engaged in the training process and all in with [the] technology,” said Perea.