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Oversight commission recommends changes to SDPD’s discipline process, body-worn camera protocol

The Commission on Police Practices recently recommended changes to the San Diego Police Department’s body-worn camera protocol and its disciplinary process in an effort the group indicated would improve how the department handles investigations into officers’ actions.

Specifically, the commission suggested that the department implement a system to better monitor whether discipline has been issued and documented as required for any policy violations. The commission also recommended that the department change its body-worn camera protocol so that audio — in addition to video — is captured before officers hit the record button.

The recommendations were among several included in a memo the commission sent to the Police Department on May 5. The group unanimously approved the recommendations in late April.

The Commission on Police Practices reviews investigations into complaints against officers, shootings by police officers and deaths of people in-custody. Voters in 2020 approved a change that will give the commission the power to carry out its own investigations, but the process to change the structure is ongoing.

San Diego police Capt. Jeffrey Jordon said the department will review the recommendations, research them and determine whether they are “appropriate for implementation.” He added that it was premature to comment further on each recommendation.

Among those recommendations, the commission suggested changing the way the department’s body-worn cameras capture footage. Currently, even before officers hit the record button, the cameras capture video during a two-minute buffer period, but no audio is recorded during that time.

The commission recommended that the cameras record sound during the buffer period, too.

Commissioners said the footage captured during the buffer period can be relevant if officers are late to hit the record button.

“The Commission believes that although the video is helpful, missing the audio omits valuable context to what occurs in a situation,” Chair Brandon Hilpert wrote in the memo.

In an interview, Hilpert said there was no specific issue that led to the recommendation, but he added that he believes audio from the buffer period could help commissioners when they review investigations.

Hilpert said he learned from an oversight panel in Northern California that the Bay Area Rapid Transit Police Department’s body-worn cameras record both video and audio during the buffer period. The memo from the San Diego commission notes that BART police officers who are late to press record on their body-worn cameras avoid discipline if the buffer footage — both audio and video — captures the start of an encounter.

Hilpert said a similar change in San Diego could result in fewer policy violations when officers don’t activate their body-worn cameras in a timely manner, as required.

It was unclear if the changes would result in additional expenses for the San Diego Police Department, which pays a contactor, Axon, to store body-worn camera footage. There was no additional cost for the Oakland-based BART Police Department, according to Deputy Chief Kevin Franklin, who said the agency’s contract with Axon allows storage of an unlimited amount of data at a set price.

Franklin said audio and video recorded during the buffer has helped capture the entirety of an encounter in many cases, including in instances when situations unfolded quickly and officers were unable to hit the record button immediately.

Franklin said the agency worked with the union that represents its officers and the Office of the Independent Police Auditor — its oversight panel — to change its protocol to capture audio in addition to video during the buffer. The agency made the switch in March 2020.

San Diego’s Commission on Police Practices also suggested a change to the Police Department’s discipline process. According to the memo from the commission, the department doesn’t have a formal system in place to track whether officers have been disciplined for policy violations or whether supervisors have written memos to document the discipline, as required.

The commission reviews the memos to evaluate whether discipline was appropriate, but there have been instances in which supervisors wrote memos only after the commission asked about their status.

Hilpert called the issue a “lack of attention to detail and follow-through on the disciplinary process.”

The commission recommended that the department require supervisors to draft a memo within 14 days of disciplining an officer.

The group also suggested a change to the department’s discipline matrix, which outlines what consequences the department considers appropriate for various policy violations. The document includes a category for excessive force that is deemed “low level” or causes no injury. The matrix, however, does not offer guidance on discipline for excessive force that causes injury.

“The Commission believes that this is a glaring oversight and must be corrected immediately,” Hilpert wrote.

The group recommended that the department to add a category for cases of excessive force that cause injury, and said suspension should be the default form of discipline. The commission noted that the matrix calls for suspension when an officer is found for a second time to have used excessive force that is deemed “low-level” or that causes minor injury.

Among other suggestions, the Commission on Police Practices recommended that the Police Department formalize a process to investigate complaints against brass, including captains, assistant chiefs, the assistant executive chief and the chief. Hilpert said questions about the process came up recently among both commissioners and community members, as well as concerns about potential conflicts of interest in relying on internal affair investigators to handle complaints against their superiors. Hilpert declined to elaborate on the questions and concerns.



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