Plainclothes SF cops fight misconduct allegations with body cameras
Police Chief Greg Suhr said the $1,000 devices will be rolled out to 50 plainclothes supervisors in the next 6 weeks
By Jaxon Van Derbeken
San Francisco Chronicle
SAN FRANCISCO — San Francisco police supervisors will soon wear video cameras on their chests in a pilot project aimed at reassuring the public in the wake of questionable drug raids by plainclothes officers at residential hotels in 2011.
Police Chief Greg Suhr said the $1,000 devices will be rolled out to 50 plainclothes supervisors in the next six weeks as the first part of what is expected to be a deployment of 150 cameras. The goal, Suhr said, is to document every detail of an investigative search.
"We can have a recording of the conversation at the door with regard to consent on consensual entries or the announcement on search warrant entries," he said. "The main goal is to capture for purpose of evidence preservation the conversation at the threshold."
In recent years, some Bay Area cities have decided to equip officers with chest cameras at all times, with the footage used in both criminal investigations and in internal probes of officer misconduct. Suhr said using wearable cameras in other situations, including traffic stops, is under consideration.
The grant-funded program in San Francisco comes as the FBI continues to investigate several residential hotel raids in 2011.
More than 100 prosecutions had to be scuttled when footage from security videos prompted allegations that officers lied about the circumstances of drug searches and arrests or stole from suspects.
Suhr said he hopes the videos will assure the public that officers are acting properly during such raids. Martin Halloran, the head of the police union, voiced a similar sentiment, saying, "I think you are going to find out that once this equipment is out there that our officers are performing in a professional manner and have been all along."
Public Defender Jeff Adachi, who publicly released some of the footage that raised questions about the residential hotel raids, welcomed the use of the cameras, saying they have proven effective elsewhere in reducing complaints of misconduct. He stressed that the technology needed strict guidelines and supervision to protect privacy rights.
"I think it's a good idea," Adachi said. "The question, or problem of police accountability, is one that has plagued San Francisco and other cities for decades. What cameras will do is provide objective evidence of the circumstances in these cases."
In the San Bernardino County city of Rialto, police-deployed video cameras led to an 88 percent drop in complaints against officers and a 60 percent drop in the use of force in a one-year period.
While police are moving toward reliance on video cameras, San Francisco's fire department has explicitly banned firefighters from buying and using helmet-mounted cameras until a policy can be worked out to permit their use.
Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White reinforced a 2009 policy against cameras, saying she needed to protect privacy rights. She acted not long after Battalion Chief Mark Johnson's helmet-mounted camera captured footage that raised questions about the department's handling of the July 6 crash of Asiana Airlines Flight 214.
In the response to the fire, a passenger was run over by an airport fire rig after being covered by foam. Fire officials say Johnson violated the rules, but have not yet sought to discipline him.
Copyright 2013 the San Francisco Chronicle