San Francisco Reaches Agreement With Police Union on Body Cameras

The San Francisco Police Department appears closer than its ever been to deploying body cameras. (George Frey/Getty Images)

San Francisco's long languishing effort to pin cameras on its police officers appeared close to completion Tuesday evening, with statements from the city's mayor and head of the police officers' union announcing a compromise.

If the city Police Commission approves the new policy emerging from negotiations that for months appeared to be stalled, the first deployment of cameras could hit the streets by Aug. 1, according to the mayor's office.

"We are making critical investments in funding police department reform, rebuilding community trust, and bringing a culture change in how we handle conflicts on our City streets,” Mayor Ed Lee said in a written statement announcing the agreement, noting that he's budgeted over $6 million to fund the roll out of some 1,800 body cameras over the next two years.

Language in the final draft headed before the Police Commission Wednesday reflects a compromise on one of the stickiest points in the policy: When should officers involved in a critical incident, such as a shooting, be allowed to view video footage of the incident?

When police commissioners initially grappled with that question last year they left any such "pre-statement review" to the chief's discretion.

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The May 19 resignation of former Chief Greg Suhr threw that compromise into question. But, the jointly submitted final draft body camera policy from the mayor's office and the POA ends those concerns.

On pre-statement review, the final draft appears closer to what accountability advocates wanted than the union's previous position to generally allow officers to view their camera footage, even in shooting cases, and even before being interviewed.

Here's the draft language laying out circumstances in which SFPD officers would not be allowed to view body camera, or any footage:

Following any (1) officer-involved shooting, (2) in-custody death, or (3) criminal matter, any subject officer shall be required to provide an initial statement before he or she reviews any audio or video recording.

The initial statement by the subject officer shall briefly summarize the actions that the officer was engaged in, the actions that required the use of force, and the officer’s response. The statement shall be distinct from the “public safety statement.”

After providing an initial statement, the subject shall have an opportunity to review any audio or video recordings depicting the incident with his or her representative or attorney prior to being subject to an interview.

This new, distinct "initial statement" may preserve officers' perspective of an incident unaltered by reviewing footage. It's an officers' state of mind, regardless of what video later reveals, that helps define the legal standard for justified uses of force.

The "public safety statement" is a set of mandatory questions an officer involved in a critical incident must answer at the scene if ordered by a supervisor. The questions seek information on any threat that may still exist but avoid seeking officers' reasons for using force.

"Rank-and-file police officers value transparency, and we welcome body cameras as an effective tool to improve public safety and strengthen accountability," Halloran wrote in a statement issued Tuesday. "Body cameras are not a panacea, but they provide a key record of events for use in investigations -- and are a clear signal to our community that police officers hold ourselves to the highest standards."

Body camera deployment was one of several major changes to the SFPD initiated by former Chief Greg Suhr that have landed before interim Chief Toney Chaplin, who said the cameras would be a major focus for him upon taking over the position.

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"This is a game changer for the San Francisco Police Department and moves us firmly into 21st Century Policing,” Chaplin said in a written statement. “We welcome this agreement with the San Francisco Police Officers Association and we look forward to the deployment of the cameras as soon as possible.”

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