Brutal brawl with SF police prompts chief to talk body cams
The SF police were depicted as the 'bad guys' when cell phone camera only caught what happened after the suspect attacked
By C.W. Nevius
San Francisco Chronicle
SAN FRANCISCO — A brawl broke out Friday between San Francisco police officers and residents of the Valencia Gardens public housing complex. There were videos of police punching angry residents, handcuffing a distraught 20-year-old bicyclist and leading away a man, his face covered in blood.
Frankly, it didn't look good for the cops.
But Police Chief Greg Suhr has an interesting response. He wants more video — he wants his officers to wear cameras.
He's about to get his wish. In two weeks, with the help of a $250,000 federal grant, the Police Department will begin equipping some officers with wearable cameras in a pilot program.
Initially the small, cigar-shaped cameras will be issued to 50 plainclothes officers who execute search warrants and parole checks and who might enter people's homes. The idea is to blunt suggestions that officers aren't identifying themselves properly when they knock on doors.
Suhr contends that if a camera — and not one from the cell phone of a bystander — had been present at Valencia Gardens, it would have recorded what really happened: A man riding his bike on a sidewalk started to fight when a plainclothes officer tried to stop him, "the guy biting the officer as soon as he touched him."
Camera Always Running
That may be true, although the plainclothes officer who can be seen raining punches on a witness has some explaining to do. But the chief's point is that most witnesses don't start filming until fists start to fly.
"It's always the second punch," he says. "When the cell phones go on, we're in the middle of a response and we're losing the argument."
The new cameras will catch the second punch, the first punch and whatever started the altercation — because they'll always be running.
That is just the start. If the cameras are as successful in San Francisco as they've been elsewhere, they will become standard issue.
BART Deputy Chief of Police Benson Fairow says that when the transit agency began to roll out video cameras last year after two fatal police shootings, "there was a little apprehension" among officers. There was a two-month pilot program last November, with full implementation in June.
"It's been wonderful," Fairow says. "This is the future in law enforcement, just like when we introduced radios, cars and bulletproof vests. People say they are worried that video is looking at them all the time. Really? Today? There's video looking at us right now."
SFPD will be using the same system as BART, the Axon Flex by Taser International. The camera is light enough to clip to the bill of a cap or a shirt lapel. There's also an important feature called the pre-event video buffer.
The camera, always on, records half-minute clips. If nothing happens, the piece is erased and the camera starts over. But if an officer spots something and hits the record button, the previous 30 seconds is preserved at the beginning of the recording.
BART Sgt. Tanzanika Carter says she was patrolling this week when "my camera showed a guy jumping over the rail." She hit the record button and captured the whole sequence for posterity.
That pretty much ended any discussion of whether he was a fare evader.
SFPD Commander Mikail Ali, whom Suhr calls his "gadget guy," says that after the short pilot program, the plan is to give cameras to traffic control officers.
"You see a guy run a red light, you activate, and it captures him," Ali said. "In terms of best evidence, that's huge."
Even for a city that has always been concerned with protecting privacy, the video plan seems to have broad support.
Public Defender Jeff Adachi, who has criticized the police for giving cursory or nonexistent identification when serving search warrants in the past, is behind the concept.
"Absolutely. It makes sense," Adachi said. "It will protect both the individual that is being approached as well as the officer. Instead of a 'he said, she said,' you will have an objective record."
In fact, a news story this year says that studies by a criminologist at the University of Cambridge show that when cameras are in use, there is a decrease in citizen complaints against officers as well as a reduction in the use of force by the police.
Adachi wonders if officers would be required to tell subjects that a video camera is running. BART's Carter says that turns out to be an advantage.
"I've had cases where someone is causing a problem and I hold up the camera and say, 'You know I'm recording this, right?' " she says. "And they calm right down."
There are potential problems.
"If I am in close proximity to having shots fired, the last thing I am thinking about is turning on a camera," Ali says. "There will be occasions when the officer doesn't capture the event."
That brings us back to the Valencia Gardens controversy. When video of an encounter is not available, Suhr says, conspiracy theories abound.
"We've gone through this before in a place where there were three cameras and some are not working," he says. "If the cameras malfunction or the officer forgets to turn them on, then the suggestion is that it was deliberate."
At Valencia Gardens, Suhr says, there was a camera that could have recorded the initial encounter. Unfortunately, the view was blocked by a tree.
"And," Suhr says, "we did not put the tree there."
Copyright 2013 the San Francisco Chronicle
McClatchy-Tribune News Service