Hey SFPD: Body Cams Should Help, Not Hurt, Police Accountability
Dec. 3 update:
Last night, the San Francisco Police Commission approved a policy for police body cameras that ensures they are used as a tool for accountability, not abuse. They listened to the input of dozens of San Franciscans, numerous civil rights organizations, as well the SF Public Defender and other legal or scientific experts calling for a policy that limits an officer's ability to see footage before making a statement. The ACLU, along with the Council on American Islamic Relations, Color of Change, and Asian Americans Advancing justice, believes allowing officers to see footage of critical incidents (use of force or allegations of misconduct) before making a statement gives police an unfair advantage that witnesses and victims don’t receive. Additionally, clear guidelines about when footage is publicly released are key to rebuilding trust and ensuring accountability.
The policy approved by the San Francisco Police Commission prohibits officers from viewing footage before making a statement when 1) there has been an officer involved shooting, or 2) there is a criminal investigation. The Chief of Police is able to make an exception to this rule.
Body cameras won’t solve all the problems of racial profiling and use of force, but with the right policy, they can be a tool for accountability. The policy approved by the SF Police Commission is a good step forward. The policy now faces a labor negotiation with the San Francisco Police Union Association before body cameras can be implemented in San Francisco.
Dec. 1, 2015:
Today, as Americans seek answers over racial and religious profiling of people of color, and the deaths of too many Black people at the hands of law enforcement—like Michael Brown, like Sandra Bland, like Tamir Rice—San Francisco has an opportunity to further police accountability and transparency.
Tomorrow, the San Francisco Police Commission votes on a policy to govern the SFPD’s use of body cameras.
There are lives at stake. Last year, four SFPD officers shot 59 bullets at Alex Nieto, a young Latino, and killed him.
And in April, for no justifiable reason, SFPD officers beat and arrested our client Travis Hall, a 23-year-old Black man, right outside his own home. Travis’s mother, Leigh, asked: “What if they had hit his head on the pavement one more time? …I’d be [left] only with a photo of my son.”
With a strong policy in place, body cameras could have shown what really happened to our client Travis that night.
Body cameras can only build public trust when they are used in a way that integrates police accountability and government transparency. To ensure that happens, and in the interest of justice for impacted communities of color, the Commission should include two critical provisions.
First, the body camera policy should require that, at a minimum, officers facing charges of misconduct or involved in critical incidents be barred from viewing relevant footage before making a statement or writing an initial report.
Many of the largest California police departments, such as those in Oakland, San Jose, and Richmond, have already taken steps to adopt this essential practice, which prevents a double-standard that would favor police. Investigations require looking into what was in officers’ minds when incidents like shootings occur, not their possibly altered memory after they view footage.
Second, the policy should require the SFPD to proactively release footage of public importance (such as those of a shooting or other serious use of force, or other potential misconduct). The government should never force the public to wait a year to see footage, like Laquan McDonald’s community in Chicago had to do.
Dozens of San Franciscans have spoken up publicly in favor of requiring initial statements before review. So have several civil rights organizations—the ACLU of Northern California, Asian Americans Advancing Justice, Color of Change, and the Council on American-Islamic Relations—as well as members of the working group that drafted the policy.
The community cares what happens with San Francisco’s body camera policy. And the Police Commission should listen. The Commission needs to make sure that body cameras are a tool for transparency and accountability, not for protecting officers at the expense of public trust and safety. It is a matter of life and death.
Matt Cagle is a technology and civil liberties policy attorney with the ACLU of Northern California.
Letter to the San Francisco Police Commission from ACLU of California, the Council on American Islamic Relations of San Francisco Bay Area, Color of Change, and Asian Americans Advancing Justice Asian Law Caucus (Oct. 20, 2015)
ACLU-NC lawsuit against the Hayward Police Department over fees to access body cam footage.
Voters Strongly Support Public Access to Police Body Cam Footage (Aug. 26, 2015)