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Thursday, December 3, 2015

SF Cops Complain that the City’s Body Camera Policy Treats Them Like Criminals

Posted By on Thu, Dec 3, 2015 at 10:07 AM

  • Mike Koozmin/SF Examiner

As a parade of San Francisco cops questioned the police commission last night about why the city might not trust them to view footage from the body cameras they’d soon be required to wear on duty, five of their colleagues were across town, shooting an allegedly knife-wielding man.

It was a hell of a night all around.

The shooting happened roughly an hour before the commission meeting, calling Police Chief Greg Suhr away from City Hall. There was plenty of blue on display without him, though: Cops were lined up around the bend trying to convince the commissioners to see things their way.

Most of the particulars of the soon-to-be-enacted body camera protocol have been settled: the SFPD is definitely getting cameras, and officers will be required to turn them on during almost any incident that could get them into trouble.

The only thing left to argue about was whether a cop who has used force should be allowed to review his or her camera’s footage before submitting an initial report about the incident.

Civil rights advocates — including public defender Jeff Adachi, who commented to the commission last night — say no, fearing that a bad cop might change his or her story to conform to the video evidence, and thus weasel out of a charge. The SFPD, on the other hand, argue that they have a right to access the footage.

In a slightly different world, their argument would probably draw a lot of water.

“The video is evidence,” Martin Halloran, head of the police officers' union, told the commission. Why should an officer be deprived of such a vital piece of evidence just because it happened to be attached to his or her uniform?

One officer explained that, in an emergency, a cop relies on “muscle memory” rather than conscious decision and might not remember much later. Deputy Chief of Police Hector Sainez even related an anecdote about an officer who didn’t remember he’d been hit by a car until watching it happen on video.

Others appealed to the commissioners’ emotions.

“You trust me with the gun, but not with this?” one officer asked, sounding genuinely hurt. “If you don’t trust me, I’ll go.”

“I have pulled the trigger and taken a life in the line of duty,” said another SFPD veteran. “It weighs on me.”

The commission probably found this all very stirring. But, ultimately, they voted to go another route, barring cops from watching their own use-of-force footage unless the chief of police himself overrides the rule. (A decision that probably doesn’t please the opposition, either. Commissioner Petra DeJesus called it the “cut the baby in half” compromise.)

There is still one more vote before the rules are final, but chances are this is the policy we’re sticking with.

The dispute boils down to this: When a police officer kills someone in the line of duty, should he or she be treated as a police officer, or as a potential suspect in a homicide? San Francisco’s cops see themselves as cops no matter what, and a cop wants access to all of the evidence.

But to some San Francisco residents, such as the Fillmore woman who testified Wednesday that she never calls the police for fear they could kill someone, a cop who pulls the trigger might not be just a cop anymore. That cop might — might — now be a criminal. And you don’t show criminal suspects all of the key evidence against them while they‘re trying to sort out their alibi.

San Francisco’s finest no doubt bristle at the suggestion, but the writing has been on the wall for a while: If the police want full public trust, business as usual no longer works. Even if cops think they’re not getting a fair shake, it’s too late to turn back the tide.

The dramatic video of yesterday’s Bayview confrontation says it all. It’s probable that the cops we see there are good cops. (Most cops are.) It’s possible that the suspect was armed, dangerous, and a threat to those around him. It’s possible that it was a “good” shooting.

But it’s unquestionable that watching what happened scares the hell out of 99 percent of us. And that’s why that writing is on the wall.

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Adam Brinklow

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