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Policing in the Age of YouTube: S.F. Police to Join Ranks of Camera-Toting Cops

| November 22, 2013
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By Thuy Vu

Warning: The video below contains profanity and some graphic images.

Last week’s videotaped brawl between San Francisco police officers and residents of the Valencia Gardens public housing complex is sparking a lot more questions than answers. What happened exactly in the critical moments before the altercation, none of which is captured on camera?

Police say that when plainclothes officers tried to detain 20-year-old D’Paris Williams for riding his bicycle on the sidewalk near his home in the Mission District neighborhood last Friday, Williams wouldn’t stop. Officers confronted him as he tried to flee into his apartment, police say, and the situation escalated when he tried to resist arrest. The video above, and a second one posted this week, shows what happened after the incident began.

Here’s how the San Francisco Chronicle described the arrest later:

“It escalated to a point where (Williams) was trying to resist arrest,” said Officer Gordon Shyy, a department spokesman. The officers “proned him out on the ground, and he still continued to struggle.”

Williams’ sister, Christina Williams, 21, said officers beat her brother needlessly outside their front door.

“He was just coming in the house,” she said in an interview Monday. “And they want to say they’re coming after him for riding a bike on the sidewalk. He had to bring the bike on the sidewalk to come into the house.”

Police say five officers were injured in the brawl, which led to a total of four arrests. Those detained included a man who was shoved and punched by a plainclothes officer. The community responded with a Tuesday night protest of the incident.

Residents of Valencia Gardens Apartments and others protest the arrest of D’Paris Williams. (Photo courtesy of Travis Jensen/www.travisjensenphoto.com)

Residents of Valencia Gardens public housing complex and others protest the arrest of D’Paris Williams.
(Photo courtesy of Travis Jensen/www.travisjensenphoto.com)

The Valencia Gardens episode is the latest in a growing string of incidents, including the BART police killing of Oscar Grant and last month’s widely publicized confrontation between New Mexico police officers and a family of six, in which video is playing a crucial role in showing police conduct to a global public. In the Grant case, numerous bystanders recorded the confrontation leading to the fatal shooting. In the New Mexico event, police video showed details of a wild altercation that led to shots fired and the arrest of a mother and her 14-year-old son.

As retired Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge LaDoris Cordell told me this week, the presence of that constantly unfolding video record has changed policing forever.

“Now, it’s not just the officers’ accounts anymore, but you have all this video out there,” Judge Cordell said.

She knows a thing or two about law enforcement controversies. She’s currently San Jose’s Independent Police Auditor, assisting victims of police abuse and misconduct. I called Cordell to get her perspective on the incident in San Francisco. She says police behavior is just one side of the coin.

“Excessive force is in the eye of the beholder. We don’t have all the details,” Cordell said. “Why did other people get involved? Did they make threats against the police? Were they hostile?”

Cordell thinks every officer should wear a camera. She believes that would help provide an objective record, protecting both the officer and the person who is approached, reducing the inherent problems of “he said, she said” scenarios. Just this week, Palo Alto’s City Council approved cameras for some of its patrol cars and officers.

As San Francisco Chronicle columnist C.W. Nevius noted in an article published Thursday, San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr also wants his officers to wear cameras. In fact, the department will soon begin a pilot program equipping 50 plainclothes officers with small, cigar-shaped video devices.

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We’ll explore this topic further and dig deeper on the issue of relations between police and communities of color on this week’s edition of KQED Newsroom. Both C.W. Nevius and Judge LaDoris Cordell will be guests on the program.

KQED NEWSROOM is a weekly news magazine program on television, radio and online. Watch Fridays at 8 p.m. on KQED Public Television 9, listen on Sundays at 6 p.m. on KQED Public Radio 88.5 FM and watch on demand here.

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Category: Law Enforcement

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  • Michelle

    It seems that these new cameras that the SF police are testing out are still fundamentally biased towards protecting the police more than the public, as the way the cameras are placed on the officers, they are filming the people they are interacting with and not themselves.

  • Chris OConnell

    Whoever that is at the 1:00 mark with the beige pants, brown top and black hat, then he is a menace to society and a criminal thug. And it appears he is a plainclothes police officer. And a disgrace.