Police body cam policies in San Jose and Oakland are flawed, report says

By Hannah Knowles and Harry Harris | San Jose Mercury News | Link to Article

WASHINGTON -- Oakland, San Jose and San Francisco's police departments should all revise their policies governing body-worn camera use to better protect citizens' civil rights and privacy, according to a "policy score card" for 50 major U.S. cities released Tuesday.

The report, an updated and expanded version of an earlier score card published in November by The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and Upturn, follows growing scrutiny nationwide of police officers' use of force, as more cities adopt body cameras in the hopes of bolstering often-shaky trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve.

Oakland equipped its police force with body cameras in 2010; San Jose just debuted its first wave of body cameras last month; and San Francisco has yet to implement its cameras after its Police Commission approved their rollout in June. A Mercury News survey of dozens of local police departments in April found 31 out of 49 departments with records had approved or implemented body cameras, with more planning to do so in the future.

Civil rights advocates worry that, used without proper oversight, body-worn cameras won't create the transparency their advocates tout and could even lead to excessive police surveillance.

"Body-worn cameras carry this promise of police accountability," said Harlan Yu, a principal at Upturn, a technology consulting company, and one of the score card's main authors. "But accountability doesn't come automatically, just because a police department decides to purchase and adopt them."

The three Bay Area cities evaluated in the score card had mixed performance among the report's eight categories: availability of policy details, access to footage, protection of personal privacy, limited footage retention, regulation of facial recognition technology, and bounds on officers' ability to tamper with videos, decide when to record and review footage.

Yu, a San Jose native, said the Bay Area leads the way nationally in one area: limiting officers' ability to watch footage of incidents they're involved in before writing their initial report. No department in the U.S. fully satisfied the score card by prohibiting officers from previewing video in all types of incidents, but Oakland, San Jose and San Francisco were among only six cities that got a partial nod of approval. Oakland received particular kudos for its two-step process limiting officers' video viewing in cases where they killed or seriously injured someone.

Yu said that regulations like Oakland's are important to "even the playing field" of credibility among officers and other witnesses. They prevent police from making their account far more accurate -- and thus more convincing -- than other people's.

Still, the score card suggests local police departments have much room to improve. All three Bay Area cities do not guarantee citizens with misconduct complaints access to the videos -- a provision that the vast majority of cities surveyed also failed to include and that California law does not mandate. San Jose's policy, for example, states that footage is for police use only, unless granted an exception by the police chief or the chief's designee.

Oakland, San Jose and San Francisco also fail the report's guidelines on footage retention and "biometric technologies": They don't limit how long departments can keep videos and don't regulate searching of video with high-tech tools such as facial recognition.

Scott Simpson, media and campaigns director for The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said that facial recognition combined with indefinitely held footage has the potential to be particularly intrusive, if, for example, police used it to identify people they did not interact with.

"All of these departments are able to create a bank of footage that maps innocent people on the street," Simpson said. His group recommends that footage irrelevant to ongoing investigations be deleted after six months.

Misuse of facial recognition might sound futuristic and hypothetical, Yu said, but Taser International, the company responsible for most of the body cameras in the U.S., hopes to add the technology to its devices in the future.

Johnna Watson, a spokeswoman for Oakland police, called the report "encouraging and informational."

"Encouraging because it appears the Oakland Police Department is heading in the right direction in the use of body-worn cameras and informational in that there are still areas that can be improved," she wrote in a statement, adding that the department is constantly reviewing its policies.

The San Jose Police Department did not comment in time for publication. The San Francisco Police Department stated that the body-camera technology is new and still being implemented.

By the score card's account, San Jose has slightly more work to do than Oakland and San Francisco to adequately regulate its body cameras. For example, while Oakland and San Francisco provide detailed circumstances in which an officer must record their activities, the report says San Jose uses overly vague language, allowing "wide discretion to turn the camera off prematurely."

Lapses in officer discretion for camera use have raised outrage in the Bay Area. Last fall, not one of 11 Alameda County sheriff's deputies present at the beating of a car-theft suspect had their body cameras turned on to record the violence. The county had not made camera use mandatory.

Tightening usage rules is a start, Yu said, but agencies need to do more than perfect their policies. Tuesday's report is based solely on police's body camera-specific rules and does not examine the strength of penalties for officers that flout those rules. In April, this newspaper found among dozens of local agencies no specific punishments for failing to turn on body cameras.

Chicago leads all cities surveyed in Tuesday's report with six of the report's eight criteria fully satisfied. Meanwhile, Fresno and Ferguson, Mo. stand out as the only two cities that fail all eight metrics.

However, while the score card invites comparison between cities, Simpson said that it's more important to benchmark cities against objective civil rights criteria. In that light, he said, all police departments need to revise their rules.

"Truthfully, there's a nationwide disregard for civil rights and privacy," he said. "And the Bay Area is no exception."