Tech on uniforms, in cars adopted in effort to show commitment to transparency


Blog note: this article references a 2015-16 grand jury report recommending that video cameras be attached to police officers' uniforms.
Interactions with South San Francisco police will be recorded, as the department rolled out in recent weeks a new program attaching video cameras to officers’ uniforms.
Adopting the technology marks full implementation of a City Council decision late last year to pay $312,000 for the 45 uniform cameras and 21 cameras mounted on police vehicles.
With the step, South San Francisco joins the ranks among other local cities where police officers will wear the uniform cameras in accordance with a county civil grand jury report recommending the equipment.
Following training seminars over the past month, South San Francisco police Lt. Keith Wood said officers are adequately prepared to use the cameras considered by advocates a valuable tool for improving transparency.
“For the most part, they are very supportive of it,” said Wood. “I think the officers like having video proof that will be used on their cases to provide evidence for the district attorney, and it also helps to document the contact in case anything does happen.”
The cameras will begin recording any time an officer responds to a dispatched call or initiates contact with a civilian, in instances such as a traffic stop. Not all interactions will be documented though, said Wood, as the equipment will remain off according to an officer’s discretion during casual conversations or while walking city streets.
In more urgent situations when policy mandates recordings to begin, Wood said the systems are designed to account for potential user error and the cameras will click on automatically when an officer unlocks their car service weapon, accelerates their vehicle in pursuit past a certain high speed, turns on their emergency lights or a variety of other triggers.
“We use the technology to help minimize situations where an officer could have forgotten,” said Wood.
He added the devices are very simple to use — activated with a single click — and a focus of the training effort was designed to build camera operation into each officer’s daily routine.
“It’s a muscle memory thing,” said Wood, who suggested the expectation is officers will become accustomed to using the cameras as required, in a similar fashion to strapping on a seat belt in their cruiser.
The uniform cameras are also digitally linked to the new vehicle systems which activate and add another lens simultaneously capturing interactions, said Wood.
South San Francisco has had vehicle cameras installed for years, but Wood said industry innovations have enhanced the technology so significantly that officials recommended purchasing new systems designed to pair with the uniform equipment.
“This is a big improvement on our old system,” he said.
When city officials agreed to adopt the systems, Police Chief Jeff Azzopardi admitted the decision was influenced by a San Mateo County Civil Grand Jury report issued last year recommending the cameras to each local law enforcement department.
South San Francisco will now join Belmont, Foster City, Hillsborough, Menlo Park, Atherton, San Mateo and Burlingame, which all have or recently approved the cameras.
Wood said he believed embracing the technology signified his department’s commitment to being accessible and honest with its community.
“Having officers wear cameras, and the new video cameras in the cars, adds another level of transparency and another level of evidence,” he said.
There are some limits to the accessibility to the footage captured by the cameras though, said Wood, as the video is considered police property and not subject to requests under the state’s Public Records Act.
“People can’t come in and say ‘I want to see the video,’” said Wood, suggesting greater public availability to the video would create a logistical nightmare for the department through attempting to accommodate the anticipated flood of demand.
If someone claims they were treated unfairly by an officer, they could file a complaint with the department and evidence collected by the cameras would be examined during an investigation of the incident, said Wood.
There can be exceptions made to the limited accessibility policy, said Wood, and police officials may approve publicly releasing video in circumstances such as officer shootings or other notable incidences.
Typically though, residents will not be able to view to the material considered potentially sensitive, said Wood, as is commonly the case in most departments where the cameras are used.
“In general, the video itself is not considered public record,” he said.
As officers take to the streets with the new equipment, Wood said there may have been an initial reticence to incorporate its use, as may commonly be the case with taking on new technology.
But as the comfort level grows, so goes enthusiasm in the department for the cameras, said Wood.
“They like it. We’ve had very little gripes or complaints,” he said. “I think a vast majority of the officers are excited to have it.”
July 6, 2017
The Daily Journal
By Austin Walsh