Police pressed over video of recent shooting
The police shooting of a man in San Francisco’s Ocean View neighborhood has presented the city force with its first major challenge after outfitting officers with body-worn cameras: determining when the footage should be released to the public.
At a town hall meeting this week, police officials provided a detailed account of what videos revealed about the Jan. 6 shooting of an unarmed, mentally ill man who allegedly kicked and punched two officers responding to reports of a restraining order violation.
But they refused to release the footage itself, asserting that the investigation into the shooting of 42-year-old Sean Moore — who was arraigned Friday from a hospital bed on charges including assault on a peace officer — could be compromised. Such investigations can take several months, or longer.
The decision came amid a push for police reform in San Francisco, and it involves a camera program designed to promote transparency and accountability. While police said withholding the
video was still necessary, the move prompted outcry from activists and suspicion about the police account of the confrontation.
“Where’s the video?” Betty Mackey of the Anti-Police Terror Project asked at the town hall, which was held Thursday evening a block from the scene of the shooting. “You said you already reviewed it, and you gave us a summary of it. Why are you not sharing the video with the public?”
Interim Chief Toney Chaplin told Mackey that the department would decide whether to release the footage after the investigation is complete, consistent with the body-camera policy passed by the city Police Commission in June after considerable debate. Officers began using the cameras in August.
The policy states that the department’s goal is to release recordings “to the greatest extent possible,” but that police can decline to release video when disclosure would “endanger the safety of a witness or another person involved in the investigation, jeopardize the successful completion of an investigation, or violate local, state and/or federal laws.”
The problem, according to critics, is that multiple investigations are launched after police shootings — including criminal and internal-affairs probes — and can take years, particularly in fatal shootings.
And last week’s shooting, the critics noted, appeared to be isolated to an interaction between two officers and the man who was shot, limiting the danger that public circulation of the footage would taint witness accounts. The officers have given initial statements, and Moore is in custody at San Francisco General Hospital on $2 million bail.
But Sgt. Michael Andraychak, a police spokesman, said authorities need to be careful.
“Our goal is to be as transparent as possible, but when there is an open investigation, we have to be cautious about what information is released and the timing of the release of that information,” Andraychak said. “Mr. Moore has not yet been afforded the opportunity to give a statement. One of the concerns is we can’t have the video out there to taint his recollection if he wants to give a statement.”
The California Public Records Act includes an exception in which records can be withheld during a pending investigation, but “the most important thing to understand is that is not a mandatory exception,” said John Crew, a police watchdog and former American Civil Liberties Union lawyer.
“It is mandatory only if it will jeopardize the integrity of an investigation,” he said. “How would release of this information jeopardize the investigation? Have the officers been interviewed? Were there any other witnesses at 4 o’clock in the morning whose accounts would be tainted by seeing this video? If not, then there is no policy justification for choosing to follow that exception.”
But Harry Stern, a Bay Area attorney who represents police officers, said the department was right to hold off on releasing footage until the investigation is completed.
“In this town, police policy is being driven by the activist class, who represent a tiny fraction of the populace,” Stern said. “Number of YouTube hits shouldn’t be a factor in deciding whether a shooting is justified or not. Waiting until the conclusion of the investigation is the best practice.”
Other Bay Area police agencies that equip officers with body cameras have typically declined to release footage during investigations into incidents. However, they have made exceptions, particularly in high-profile cases in which the video supports officers whose actions are being publicly questioned.
The Ocean View shooting happened after two San Francisco officers, one of whom Andraychuk identified Friday as Kenneth Cha, responded to reports of a restraining order violation and encountered Moore at the front door of his home on Capitol Avenue.
Cmdr. Greg McEachern said footage from the officers’ cameras showed Moore yelling profanities at the officers through a locked gate as they tried to speak to him.
Moore eventually opened the gate to grab the restraining order papers from the officers, who were standing below him on the front steps. An officer deployed pepper spray, McEachern said, and Moore kicked him in the face before retreating into the house.
The other officer called an ambulance for his partner’s injury, as well as for the aftereffects of the pepper spray on both of them and Moore. Moore then reportedly reopened the door, threw the papers on the ground and walked into the street. The officers told him he was under arrest, and one officer struck him in the lower leg with a baton while he was on the front steps, McEachern said.
Moore allegedly punched that officer, knocking him off the steps, and when he advanced on the second officer, that officer shot twice, McEachern said.
Moore has a history of paranoid schizophrenia that is known to officers in the area, according to family members. They said he was struck in the stomach and groin.
After being shot, he retreated into the house, and hostage negotiators spent an hour attempting to coax him out before a tactical team entered to get him treatment, officials said.
Crew said there was reason for the public to question the police account, and that police had a chance to build trust by releasing the footage. McEachern’s account of what the footage showed contradicted original reports provided to the media that the officer shot Moore after he grabbed one of the officers’ batons.
Complicating the scrutiny of the shooting, the police union used the incident to blast the city Police Commission for its recent decision to deny officers less-lethal force options such as carotid neck holds and electric stun guns.
“The officers deployed pepper spray, but it was ineffective,” Police Officers Association President Martin Halloran said. “During the confrontation, one of the officers’ batons either fell to the ground or was taken by the suspect.”
Crew said police “gave out information that was inconsistent with what was on the bodycamera footage and the (union) came out and put their spin on it. They need to get the actual information out, and get it out sooner rather than later.
“The more you delay,” he said, “the more suspicion there will be of the department and the reason they have for delaying it.”
Resident Equipto Sato speaks out after Cmdr. Greg McEachern dismissed a question at a town hall meeting Thursday about an officer-involved shooting in the Ocean View neighborhood.