Two San Diego police officers fatally shot an individual in downtown San Diego yesterday. Both officers were equipped with body cameras, but neither turned his camera on. The officers appear to have violated SDPD’s body camera policy, and an explanation from the Department is in order.

SDPD policy requires officers to record all “enforcement related contacts,” including traffic stops, field interviews, detentions, and arrests. Certainly, responding to a disturbance would fall under this definition, and therefore both officers should have pressed record on their cameras prior to engaging the individual.

Claiming safety trumped turning on the body cameras in this situation is not an acceptable without further explanation. Generally, ensuring public and officer safety overrides turning a body camera on in situations where immediate action needs to be taken. But this calculation should only occur in a very small proportion of instances.

The standard policy of the Department is and should be to begin recording prior to actual contact. In this case the first reaction to the disturbance should have been to turn their body cameras on. Without more details, it appears the cameras should have been activated when the officers decided to interact with the individual. Had this occurred the public would have a more complete picture of what actually happened (although, this depends on whether SDPD would actually release the video to the public, a concern the ACLU and many others have consistently raised with the Department).

Time is needed to train officers to turn on the camera and develop muscle memory. But SDPD should intervene when officers fail to follow policy and discipline officers for repeated or blatant violations of the policy. Discipline may be required in the current instance if the officers willingly neglected to turn on the cameras or if they have a history of not following the policy.

If the cameras were not rolling during the shooting on Tuesday, how many of the thousands of SDPD contacts with community members are not being recorded? SDPD should randomly audit stored body camera footage to ensure encounters are actually being recorded. When footage is not found for instances that should have been recorded, appropriate disciplinary measures should be taken.

Body cameras are a tool to improve community-police relations. If policy is weak or not enforced, these tools will not be helpful and could be detrimental in this goal. Body cameras will become a tool only for surveillance and enforcement, rather than accountability and transparency as was promised.

At the very least, SDPD should explain why the officers did not turn on their body cameras and the actions the Department will take to prevent this from happening again. If warranted, SDPD should utilize discipline against the officers for not turning on the camera in violation of the Department’s policy.

The ACLU encourages individuals to download our Mobile Justice CA app, which allows bystanders to record interactions between police and the community and directly upload the video to the ACLU for review. Especially if officer body cameras are not turned on, civilian footage is crucial to holding police accountable.

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