SJPD Current Body-Worn Camera Policy Allows Police to Police Themselves

Former San Jose Independent Police Auditor Judge LaDoris Cordell highlights concerns with SJPD's current policies on body-worn cameras that can lead to more distrust and suspicion, loosing the opportunity for accountability from both police and citizens. This piece was written for the publication.

In 2011, The Office of the Independent Police Auditor (IPA) called for body-worn cameras for the SJPD’s patrol officers. Five years later, that call has been heeded, and that’s a good thing. Under the leadership of Chief Garcia, the department is now one of a growing number of law enforcement agencies across the country to embrace body-worn cameras. While these devices are not the answer to all of the problems that exist between police and communities of color, they are a major step forward in restoring trust between them. Body-worn cameras will capture, in real time, officers’ interactions with the public, and by doing so, will hold both police and citizens accountable for their actions. 

But these cameras are only as good as the policies that guide their operation. The good news is that the SJPD policy is available to the public. The bad news is that this policy does little to bring transparency to policing in San Jose; and it may limit the ability of the IPA office to fulfill its role in providing independent civilian review of citizen-generated complaints about police conduct.

In 1996, the voters of the City of San Jose amended the city’s charter to create the Office of the IPA. One of the IPA’s mandates is the review of police department investigations of complaints against police officers to determine if the investigations were complete, thorough, objective and fair. For more than 20 years, the IPA office has provided this independent civilian oversight of citizen complaints. But should the SJPD policy for body-worn cameras be implemented, complaints from members of the public about police conduct may not necessarily be subject to independent civilian oversight. Instead, officers themselves are permitted to summarily adjudicate these complaints.

Section 4 of the SJPD body-worn camera policy states, “Supervisors may have the ability to immediately resolve citizen complaints by viewing video captured by the officer’s body-worn camera prior to contacting the citizen. At no time, except at the direction of the Chief or designee, shall the supervisor allow the citizen to view the file footage. In those circumstances where a complaint is resolved with no further action needed, supervisors shall make notes in the CAD event.”  This means that should you have an interaction with a SJPD officer in which you believe the officer engaged in misconduct, and if you complain to the officer about the conduct, the officer’s supervisor has the authority to come to the scene and determine if your complaint is a valid one. Under this policy the supervisor may view the body-worn camera footage that depicts the incident; and should the supervisor conclude that your complaint has no merit, she can dismiss it, right there on the spot. And should you ask to see the footage for yourself, the answer will be “No.” The policy, in effect, allows the police to police themselves, and that’s a problem. When the guards guard themselves, transparency and accountability inevitably give way to distrust and suspicion.

The policy’s provisions that address footage of an officer’s use of force also raises a concern. According to the policy, when the force used is the result of a shooting or “an intentional act by an officer which proximately causes injury likely to produce death to another,” the officer must write her description of what happened or give an interview about the incident before viewing the footage. This policy is a best practice in policing because it captures an officer’s perception and motivation for using force, without the influence of the video footage.  

However, in instances of all other uses of force, the policy permits officers to write their reports after they have viewed the footage that captured the incidents. This means that when an officer strikes you with a baton or takes you down to the ground or punches you in the head (common uses of force by police), that officer has the opportunity to conform his perception and motivation for using force to what is depicted in the footage. There is no sound reason for the policy to differentiate in this way between lethal and non-lethal uses of force.

Finally, the policy fails to address what happens to officers who violate the policy. The Department’s policy must include language that those who intentionally or negligently violate the rules for operation of the cameras will be subject to discipline.

Truth will be in the eye of the beholder only when law enforcement agencies have sound policies for the operation of their body-worn cameras.

  


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About Judge LaDoris Cordell

LaDoris Cordell is a retired judge of the Superior Court of California and former Independent Police Auditor for the city of San Jose.

This article is part of the categories: Community  / Law & Justice  / San Jose//South Bay 
This article is part of the tags: body-worn cameras  / civilian oversight  / policing  / San Jose IPA  / SJPD  / SJPD Chief Garcia  / use of force 

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