After years of languishing in negotiations with the San Francisco Police Officers Association, the Police Commission unanimously passed a policy on Wednesday that restricts SFPD officers from viewing body-worn camera footage before providing a statement about an officer-involved shooting or in-custody death.

Proponents of the measure say the change will preserve the integrity of a police officer’s statement in such instances.

Yet the two and a half years the policy spent in union negotiations means that some seven police shootings and at least one in-custody death took place as the policy sat — technically approved, but not active — in the hands of the Department of Human Resources and the San Francisco Police Officers Association.

The Police Commission originally voted to pass the body-worn camera policy on to the union in January 2018. 

“Why that took two and a half years is hard to imagine,” said David Rizk, a member of the San Francisco Bar Association’s Criminal Justice Taskforce, which advocated for the policy revisions.

The changes are important, Rizk said. If an officer is involved in a police shooting or in-custody death, the new policy will require the officer to give an “initial statement” before he or she is able to review their body-worn camera footage of the incident. Rizk said this would prevent the footage from “infecting” the officer’s initial impression of the incident, which prosecutors regard as a separate piece of evidence.

Moreover, allowing an officer to view body-worn camera footage before providing an initial statement could allow the officer to alter his or her story and create justifications for the shooting. If an officer is not allowed to view the footage, and there are discrepancies between the initial statements and the footage, the officer’s credibility could be challenged in court.

“No other witnesses are treated this way,” Rizk said, noting that even with the new policy, police officers will still be allowed to view their body-worn camera footage in most instances, including serious use-of-force incidents in which no one dies or is shot. 

Though by far the most important, the revision was one of several changes to the body-worn camera policy that the Police Commission initially passed in January 2018. Other revisions clarify what it means to “activate” and “deactivate” the cameras. 

Since the first version of the body-worn camera policy went into effect in 2016, some officers have struggled to turn on their cameras properly or failed to activate them at all. Indeed, according to a report released by the Department of Police Accountability last month, officers failed to properly activate their body cameras in some 50 instances from June 2017 to December 2019. In some of those cases, officers were found to have improperly searched civilians or used excessive force on them.

But several public commenters from San Francisco’s legal community on Wednesday night focused on why the revisions required so much time for approval. They criticized the delay as emblematic of the dangers that closed-door union negotiations can have on police reforms. 

Rizk told the commissioners that the union made insubstantial changes to the policy during the years-long negotiations, deepening the questions about just what took so long. “We need to know the timeline,” Rizk told the Commissioners. “When did DHR actually hold meetings with the POA? … Did the POA engage in bad-faith delay tactics?”

When asked to shed light on the reason for the delay, San Francisco Police Officers Association President Tony Montoya provided only this emailed statement: 

“The SFPOA continues to support the deployment of body-worn cameras and the transparency they have brought to policing in our city. During that time there has not been a single minute when camera footage has not been available to help solve crimes or hold officers accountable. It’s telling that tonight’s Police Commission Meeting is focused on thumb twiddling over commas and semi-colons on a policy that has been effective as opposed to focusing on 40% increase in homicides our city has seen. Maybe [at] some point the Commision [sic] will get focused on priorities—like the increase in murder and shootings in our neighborhoods”

And an email sent to a Department of Human Resources spokesperson was not immediately returned. We will update this story if and when he returns our queries. 

“It was wonderful to see that on January 10, 2018, the commission adopted these changes and followed the best practices where officer-involved shootings were involved,” said Rebecca Young, a deputy public defender. “When the commission made that adoption, it went to meet-and-confer — and we believe it went there to die.” 

The delay not only sowed mistrust in the system but also delayed further reforms, said Kevin Benedicto of the San Francisco Bar Association. “Progress has been effectively frozen,” he said, noting that while the policy waited with the union, additional revisions could not be proposed. 

He said the Bar Association would like to extend the prohibition on viewing the body-worn camera footage to all use-of-force incidents, not only police shootings and in-custody deaths. The association would also like to require officers to write their incident reports before being allowed to see the footage as well. 

Right now, the policy allows officers to provide an “initial statement,” view the body-worn camera footage, and then write their incident report and provide more detailed interviews to investigators. 

The commissioners responded sympathetically — but did not share the public speakers’ dismay. “Those are all well-placed comments tonight,” said Commissioner John Hamasaki, “and I think that we as a commission are prepared to address them.”

Commissioner Cindy Elias said letters documenting the correspondence between the union and DHR should be made public now that negotiations have passed. “Transparency is very important, and I think this is a huge step to achieve that.” 

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