When Body Cameras Aren't Used

Bad as it looked on video, the beating of 29-year-old carjacking suspect Stanislav Petrov at the hands (and batons) of two Alameda County Sheriff's Deputies — made public in November after the San Francisco Public Defender obtained surveillance video of the incident — has only become worse.

First, a police report leaked to KTVU last week revealed the narrative of the deputies involved didn't match what was captured on camera. (Deputies reported that a violent Petrov made them fear for their lives, whereas the video appears to show an exhausted man trying to surrender only to get tackled and pummeled with as many as 30 baton strikes for his trouble.) And it was a good thing the alley where deputies Luis Santamaria and Paul Wieber caught up with Petrov after a high-speed chase across the Bay Bridge had a surveillance camera — as neither Santamaria nor Wieber nor the nine other deputies eventually involved in Petrov's apprehension had activated their department-issued body cameras.

Though law enforcement experts say use-of-force complaints drop precipitously when officers wear personal video cameras, they're still a controversial tool, used differently by different agencies. In Alameda County, the cameras are mandatory equipment, but they record only at the deputy's “discretion,” confirmed Sgt. J.D. Nelson, a department spokesman. Older, Luddite-like deputies, he surmised, may have a harder time remembering to switch them on than younger, tech-friendly cops. (Millennial deputies: They will soon be a thing.)

Or maybe the free-swinging deputies from across the Bay were just adhering to local custom. San Francisco cops currently have no body cameras, and won't until later this year at the earliest, when a long-awaited, much-debated policy equipping cops with cameras will receive final approval from city bureaucrats.

City policy (once approved) says officers “shall activate” their cameras when interacting with the public in numerous ways, including every foot chase, vehicle pursuit, detention, and arrest, as well as whenever a citizen becomes hostile, and in any other “situation where the recording would be valuable.” (Cops aren't supposed to record victims of sexual assault or child abuse, confidential informants, or strip searches.) If it turns out the cameras weren't rolling, they must later explain why in writing.

If they don't, they will be punished, promises Police Commission President Suzy Loftus.

“The goal is for them to be turned on all the time,” she says. “There will be discipline if they don't.”

Failing to turn on a camera will be treated as a failure to follow other official department procedures, such as recording the race of motorists encountered in traffic stops. Usually infractions like that result in an “admonishment” and retraining — which is to say, pretty much nothing — but repeated offenses can result in a suspension.

Cameras could be on S.F. cops as early as June, Loftus says. How effective they turn out to be will wait longer than that. “To advance accountability, body-worn camera policies need clear rules that minimize officer discretion,” says Catherine Wagner, a staff attorney with the ACLU. What happened to Petrov “really is the feared scenario … That's no way to advance accountability and improve the public trust.”

View Comments