Police Commission President Julius Turman during the taser vote on Nov. 3, 2017. Photo by Sam Goldman

The Police Commission voted unanimously on Wednesday for changes to the body camera policy in response to “misinterpretations,” in the words of Commission President Julius Turman.  

Likewise, Police Chief Bill Scott said: “There have been some issues that have arisen that we felt needed clarification.”

Turman declined to comment on what those “misinterpretations” were.

However, the three main revisions revolved around what it means to activate and deactivate the cameras, whether an officer can look at other officer’s camera footage following an incident, as well as disciplinary measures for officers who fail to activate the cameras properly when required by the policy.

In a recent officer-involved shooting in Bayview, officers failed to activate the cameras before or during the incident.

Asked what “issues had arisen,” SFPD Director of Communications David Stevenson said in an email: “Over the course of the implementation of body-worn camera protocols, questions were raised about the existing policy and its potential impacts. That prompted this re-examination of the policy and the work to clarify and clean up the language.”   

Wednesday’s revisions were made in preparation for a “meet-and-confer” — a discussion between the San Francisco Police Officers Association and SFPD leadership about specific policies — and can still be changed. However, more thorough revisions are coming soon, Turman said.

He said the Commission will be convening a working group to look closer at the policy and make the “necessary changes.”

The police department adopted body cameras in March 2016 in response to calls for greater transparency from the police. Their adoption followed a string of controversial police shootings and the emergence of racist text messages by officers that raised questions about systemic racial bias in the department.

More recently, the December shooting in Bayview of an unarmed man raised yet more questions about whether officers are using the cameras correctly.

The rookie officer who shot Keita O’Neil, Officer Chris Samayoa — as well as the field training officer who accompanied him, a veteran of the force who has not been identified — did not activate their cameras during the pursuit or before the shooting.

The shooting was captured only because the officer activated his camera after the shooting, and a mechanism on the camera captured video 30 seconds before activation, although without audio.

“At least two, if not more news items, have come up where officers haven’t turned on their body-worn cameras ’til the very end or just captured the last few seconds,” said Commissioner Petra DeJesus, who in June 2016, voted against the department’s use of the cameras because the policy was too vague to be effective — and because the policy allowed officers to watch footage before making a more comprehensive statement on the incident.

Police watchdogs argue that officers should not be allowed to watch any body camera footage, because it could sway their statements and dilute the ability of the cameras to create transparency.

Right now, officers must give an initial statement before looking at their camera footage, but they are permitted to view footage before being interviewed for the more comprehensive “public safety statement” required after an officer-involved shooting, officer-involved firearm discharge, or in-custody death.

Whether an officer can view other officer’s body-camera footage was one of the changes voted on at Wednesday night’s meeting. Before the revision, that apparently had been allowed.

Other changes to the policy defined exactly what it means to deactivate and activate the cameras, where previously there had been no definitions.

“Deactivate,” in the revised policy states, means to disable the visual and audio functions. Simply turning off the LED display on cameras or turning down the volume does not constitute deactivation.

Moreover, “activate,” according to the revised policy, means to turn on both the visual and the audio on the cameras. Operating in “buffer mode” — as Samayoa had done — or muting the camera does not constitute activation.  

“Members shall not utilize the [body-worn camera] mute function,” the policy states. “The Department reserves the right to disable the audio or visual function of the [body-worn cameras].

Asked about whether there had been instances when officers used the mute function when they should not have — or whether officers had been looking at other officers’ body camera footage — Stevenson, the SFPD spokesperson, said: “I have no information of that being so.” 

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Julian grew up in the East Bay and moved to San Francisco in 2014. Before joining Mission Local, he wrote for the East Bay Express, the SF Bay Guardian, and the San Francisco Business Times.

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