When Cameras Aren’t Enough to Stop the Killing

As San Francisco begins equipping its officers with body cameras, recent killings in Charlotte and Tulsa reveal that biased policing won’t be solved with a camera alone.

WASHINGTON — After the police killing of 43-year-old Keith Lamont Scott on Sept. 20, the city of Charlotte, N.C., waited five days for the video of the shooting to be released, leaving many communities across the country — including the Bay Area — questioning the power that biased authorities have to shape public narratives around officer-involved killings.

In San Francisco, over the past year, biased policing and racial profiling has come to light with a string of racist and homophobic text messages exchanged between several officers. The May 2016 resignation of Police Chief Greg Suhr followed several high-profile police killings of people of color, most notably Alex Nieto, Amilcar Perez-Lopez, Mario Woods, Luis Gongora, and Jessica Williams. The U.S. Department of Justice launched a review of the San Francisco Police Department after Wood’s gruesome death, which was captured on cellphone videos taken by bystanders.

These events have created a police department that is steadily losing the trust of the community. In a city deeply divided by race, there is an urgency for police reform, and the introduction of body cameras is seen by many as a necessary step to mending police-community relations. After a year of negotiations, this past June the San Francisco Police Commission approved a policy for using police-worn body cameras. According to an SFPD spokesperson, all officers holding the rank of lieutenant and below will be issued body-worn cameras. Around 70 officers and sergeants from different units were trained and equipped with cameras beginning in July. The department expects to have all of its officers and sergeants trained by the end of 2016.

On Monday, the U.S. Department of Justice awarded more than 100 police departments across the country $20 million in funding to buy and enhance their use of body cameras. According to Attorney General Loretta Lynch, the funds are meant to “increase public trust in the police,” and to ensure officers are more accountable and their behavior is more transparent.

A number of California counties, including Alameda, received money to enhance the use of body-worn cameras by law enforcement officers under this latest round of Justice Department funding. Body cameras have already been in operation in cities like Oakland, which has been fully supplying cameras to its officers since 2010. In June, the Los Angeles City Council gave its approval for the LAPD to place body-worn cameras on 7,000 patrol officers by the end of 2017, and in July, the San Jose Police Department sent out its first batch of patrol officers with body-worn cameras. Currently, about a third of the nation’s 18,000 police agencies are either testing or using body cameras, and this number will likely increase in the months to come.

Across the country, body cameras continue to be advanced as one solution to police violence. In the months following the death of Michael Brown, the 18-year-old who was killed by an officer in Ferguson, Mo., both community groups and police departments advocated for more officer-worn body cameras, with several departments rushing to equip their officers. Police accountability advocates had hoped more cameras would decrease racial profiling and provide added protection for those stopped by the police, as well as increase transparency and accountability. Police departments have said cameras would shield officers from false claims of wrongdoing and enable better evidence collection.

The SFPD’s body camera program was stalled for several years. The idea was first pushed in 2011 by Suhr, the former police chief, after surveillance videos showed several officers abusing and stealing from residential hotel dwellers. But advocates are quick to point out that cameras are not the final solution.

“The common frame on body cameras is that they are a good thing and potential solutions to problems of police accountability and lack of transparency,” explains Scott Simpson, a spokesman for the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a social justice coalition based in Washington, D.C. “But this is a dangerous thing to automatically assume. As many recent incidents seem to show, if these cameras are not governed by a set of thoughtful policies that protect the rights and the privacy of communities first, these cameras can become tools that undermine civil rights, transparency, and privacy.”

The Leadership Conference released an updated scorecard in May that examined 50 major U.S. cities and their policies governing body-worn cameras. Police departments were evaluated on eight criteria, including whether they make footage available to people filing complaints and if they prohibit officers from viewing footage before writing a police report. “There is not a clear national standard for body cameras,” Simpson says, underscoring that there are a number of different practices across the country, with many police departments still working to formulate adequate policies. “It’s the Wild West as far as these policies are concerned. We wanted to create a standard.”

The Leadership Conference’s report found that accountability is not automatic following the addition of cameras. It all depends on how the footage is used. “What we found in our study is a nation-wide failure to protect communities,” Simpson adds. In California, researchers examined the policies in place in Oakland, San Jose, and San Francisco, and found that all three cities fell short on protecting the full range of its citizens’ rights.

One of the most debated pieces of the new SFPD policy concerns whether or not officers who wear cameras should be allowed to view the footage before filing reports. In order to get the policy passed, policymakers reached a compromise that would prevent officers from viewing the tape until after they file their initial statement, but would allow officers to write a fuller statement once they viewed the tape.

However, police accountability advocates have argued that officers should not be allowed to watch the footage at all. “If you allow cops to preview footage before they write their reports, you risk having the police report conform to what the camera caught instead of what [the officer] remembers happening,” Simpson notes. “You want an independent set of evidence — evidence from the body cam, eyewitness reports, and your separate police reports.”

Despite not completely meeting this specific best practice, SFPD’s new policy does satisfy the Leadership Conference’s criteria for limiting discretion on what police officers record. The department requires officers to record a wide range of law enforcement activities including detentions and arrests, traffic and pedestrian stops, foot pursuits, and uses of force. They also require officers to document the reasons for any failures to record.

Although there has not been much research done examining the impact of body cameras, there are studies that suggest the use of body cameras can reduce the use of force by officers. In one such study published in The Journal of Quantitative Criminology in 2014, researchers found that when officers in Rialto, Calif., began wearing body cameras, use of force by officers dropped 59 percent, and complaints against officers dropped 87 percent. The study was conducted by the University of Cambridge’s Institute of Criminology and was based on a 12-month trial.

Yet the string of officer-involved shootings of unarmed civilians in the years since Ferguson have not provided clean-cut reads on the overall success of cameras. Racial profiling remains an issue across the board in the United States, even in cities with a high use of body cameras. Often, body camera footage is grainy and hard to decipher, complicated even more by the fact that police officers are not turning on the cameras when they are supposed to be in use. There have even been several cases where police officers turned off the cameras before confrontations, and then there are cases like the July fatal police shooting of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, La., where the officers claimed their cameras “fell off” or suddenly malfunctioned before the incident. Like Charlotte, many departments still lack adequate policies ensuring they’ll share the footage transparently and immediately if an incident does occur.

As San Francisco begins equipping its officers with body cameras, the recent killings in Charlotte and Tulsa, reveal that police violence won’t be solved with a camera alone. There continues to be deep biases that manifest in how Black people and other communities of color are viewed by society. These biases go on to influence how police react when making contact with Black communities, and they represent the lasting, more hard-to-change manifestations of racism that continue to haunt the U.S. criminal justice system. Without reducing the racial, gender, and class bias that color how marginalized communities are viewed and policed, American policing will not shift, even with all the cameras turned on it.

Desiree Evans is SF Weekly‘s national race and justice correspondent.

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