The public outcry that followed a group of San Francisco police officers' fatal March 21 shooting of Alejandro Nieto is now reverberating through city government.
Supervisor John Avalos invoked Nieto at a Board of Supervisors hearing last week, at which he urged other city departments to accelerate the process of installing body-mounted cameras on San Francisco police officers.
These devices might have clarified the murky details surrounding Nieto's death, or discouraged officers from using force to quell the protests at City College — another incident that Avalos cited before fellow supervisors.
Such cases erode the already fragile layer of trust between police and community members, Avalos said, adding that trust and accountability are fundamental to the city's law enforcement strategy.
In recent weeks, he's met with members of the SFPD, fellow politicians, and budget analysts to assess the cost of implementing cameras throughout San Francisco. Avalos says that most police officers support such devices as a deterrent to false or frivolous complaints about use of force, and that civil rights activists are equally amenable, because they discourage incidents of police misconduct. Avalos believes the cameras might also curb police brutality lawsuits, which bleed city coffers.
A recent Cambridge University study concluded that misconduct incidents decreased by 59 percent after police mounted body cameras in Rialto, the Supervisor pointed out. And citizen complaints went down by 87.5 percent.
But if the statistics tilt in Avalos' favor, he still has several hurdles to pass before turning every Mission District beat cop into a human recorder. Chief Greg Suhr pointed out that the cost of storing camera data, and sorting through it in response to Sunshine Act requests, might exceed the amount saved from reduced lawsuits.
Add to that San Francisco's reputation for squandering money on surveillance cameras — some of which failed to catch crimes in their vicinity. The prospect of another ambitious camera-saturation project sounds a lot more dicey.
Nonetheless, Avalos is resolute. He exhorted city bean-counters to compare the cost of implementation with the benefit of lawsuit scale-backs, and asked the Department of Emergency Management to look into potential grants from Homeland Security. He also says that body-mounted cameras are more a bad-behavior deterrent than a crime-solver, which distinguishes them from the spectacularly inadequate recorders that were installed throughout city housing projects in 2006. Most of those were affixed to buildings, and couldn't document a murder that happened outside their field of vision — even if it was nearby.
Avalos' legislative aid, Jeremy Pollock, says the new cameras will be more cost-effective. How this all shapes the larger debate about surveillance is something else worth watching.