Pando

Pando goes to the San Francisco police bodycams hearing

By Dan Raile , written on December 4, 2015

From The From the Trenches Desk

On Wednesday night, San Francisco police came a step closer to wearing body cameras while on patrol, when the civilian oversight Police Commission finalized its policy recommendations.

The Police Department, the officers union and the City Department of Human Resources now must review the policy and return it to the commission for passage.

The policy approved this week is a document of compromise. Mayor Ed Lee announced in April that was he was writing $6.6 million into the city budget over two years for a full deployment, jumpstarting policy development that had stalled an earlier, federally funded, pilot program.

The policy details were hammered out over a battery of public meetings, and by Wednesday only one major issue of contention remained: Whether or not the involved officers in cases of officer-involved-shootings should be able to view the footage before giving statements for the official incident report. Other issues, like guidelines for public release and the thorny problems of redaction, were left left vague and unargued, though they are sure to require future attention.

When the Body Cam item came up in the docket, the commissioners immediately homed in on the outstanding point of disagreement, and took turns signalling their intention to adopt a middle-of-the road policy – that officers be prohibited from watching the video before making their statement, unless the Police Chief decides otherwise. In that case, the Chief would be required to explain his reasons to the Police Commission.

Nonetheless, an hour of public comment followed, during which a dozen police officers in civvies, along with representatives from their union, argued unequivocally that they should be able to see the footage. Not doing so would produce less accurate reports, they said. It would be like blindfolding them, denying them relevant and valuable evidence on which to base their statements. Further, they protested, it would institutionalize a lack of trust.

Said one longtime officer with a sculpted upper-lip coiffure:

“It goes against everything else you tell me. It tells me you don’t trust me. If you don’t trust me, I’ll go.”

When his two minutes were up he did, in fact, leave the room.

Opponents of pre-statement viewing were fewer in number at the podium, and included SF Public Defender Jeff Adachi, reps from the local ACLU chapter, and assorted other concerned citizens. They argued for the importance of an a videori statement to establish the reasoning and state of mind of an involved officer.

“It’s a compromise, but it’s a good step forward. Our position is that there is no situation where an officer involved should give a statement after seeing the footage in a critical incident...we would expand that to include any use of force,” ACLU representative Tessa D’Arcangelu said yesterday by phone.

The police seemed less reconciled to the final compromise.

By my count, seven different police cited the psychological phenomenon of “tunnel vision” and the resulting memory gaps surrounding life-threatening moments. This may seem like a self-defeating argument – a tacit admission that traditional, non-camera-enhanced reports of shootings are best guesses or reconstructions. Maybe that’s a natural part of the experience of acute danger and of shooting someone.

It is also a stance that prefigures the intervention of an expert witness in some future trial, called upon to help explain the variance between the footage and the report. It’s a protection against future incisive and ready-made cross-examination strategies.

Local public-comment impresario Juicye Edmond was the only citizen to propose that both a pre- and post-viewing comment be collected, while turning in another inimitable performance at the podium, and explaining the distribution pattern of the buttons covering the front of his jacket.

That idea was too out there for everyone.

The vote was cast as earlier indicated; the policy moved forward toward implementation. Many details remained unformed behind phrases such as “when feasible,” “at the discretion of,” and “or when directed by the Commanding Officer.”

While the hearing ground along its predestined groove, an officer-involved-shooting investigation was just getting underway in the Bayview, requiring the presence of Police Chief Greg Suhr, who entered the chamber just as the final vote was being called. A video of the shooting, taken by citizen phone, was being passed around in the gallery. Public Defender Adachi was interviewed during a break for his opinion.

In the clip: a man doubled over on the sidewalk, hands at his sides, back to a wall. A ring of officers, guns drawn, closing. A handful of ill-fated steps, a sudden barrage of shots and screams, the camera pointed at the floor of a Muni bus. Unseen but unambiguous, a dead man.

A brief, out-of-context, 30-second clip. But enough to for many people to form an opinion of whether the man’s death was necessary. Or whether legally justifiable. Better than nothing.

Another clip surfaced soon after, on the 10 o’clock news, featuring Chief Suhr in TV lighting, speaking into a bank of microphones.

“They deployed the standard bean bag guns several times, striking the suspect. He did not drop the weapon … This suspect had already demonstrated by committing a felony aggravated assault that he was a threat to others. So he could not be allowed to move away from the scene,” he says.

The man was a suspect in a stabbing earlier that afternoon. The local CBS affiliate interspersed Suhr’s comments with the smartphone clip.

“All I can tell from the video is he does have the knife in his hand and he does move towards the officer.” He could also tell that many shots were fired, but didn’t.

His account holds up against the video and the law, if not second-guesses and common sense. A full panoramic compliment of bodycam footage would not be likely to change the situation. Was this the last and only option? What if the officer stepped back and to left and not forward to the right, into the man’s reach? Could he have been shot in the leg?

While before public comment wore on, I popped out to visit the bathroom. A uniformed officer was hunched over the sink closest to the paper towel dispenser, scrubbing his hands and forearms. “I just got back from a shooting,” he said, when I excused myself to get a towel. He was working on an arm with a sodden wad.

“I didn’t realize I still had the victim’s blood on me.”

I hadn't asked, or even raised an eyebrow. It was the first time I’d seen a police officer that shaken – enough to offer such unbidden commentary – and so close up. It probably won’t be the last.