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Law Enforcement Split On Body Cameras

Andrew Nixon / Capital Public Radio News

Sacramento Police bicycle unit officer Bryon Stone aims one of the body cameras the department is testing.

Andrew Nixon / Capital Public Radio News

Officer-worn body cameras are rare in northern California, but, perhaps not for long. About half of the  law enforcement agencies in the greater Sacramento region are using the cameras or are testing them. But, some agencies are reluctant. 

Sacramento Police Officer Bryon Stone is testing a dozen different body cameras for the department's bicycle unit. Each camera is about the size of a cigar.

"So it plugs into my battery pack, but we have it set up so you can carry it different ways," Stone says. "I carry it on my collar. There's other mounts where you can carry it behind your head and it just comes off on magnets and clips there. You can also clip it to a pair of sunglasses and it just mounts just on the side."

The camera is hard-wired to a record button and battery pack that's worn on an officer's belt or in a shirt pocket.

Stone will likely be one of the first outfitted with a camera system. The bicycle unit has no cameras and will likely get them before the patrol units -which already have dashboard cameras.

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Sac PD Sergeant Doug Morse says when every officer has a body camera, the department expects "significant" reductions in complaints against officers. That's what happened when dashboard cameras were installed 16 years ago.

"Oftentimes, it's at a person's worst when the police come into contact with them," says Morse. "So you can imagine the tensions that could be surrounding these police  contacts. The bottom line is: when we have this information on our in-car camera systems, it paints the actual stories. Unfortunately, it's the nature of the job is we receive complaints. We're able to protect everyone involved during those contacts because of the camera system."

There are many places car cameras can't go which is one reason Sacramento police are eager to add the body cameras.

But, the Sacramento Sheriff's Department is not. Sheriff Scott Jones says body cameras aren't as sophisticated as dashboard cameras.

"They're triggered by speed, triggered when you turn on your emergency overhead lights, and they're triggered by crash," says Jones. "They have a buffer that goes back 30-seconds and captures that crash. Those are great. It's a no-brainer. It works. There's no such technology that exists for body cameras."

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Taser International says its true officers must hit a button to start recording, but next year's model will have sensors that tell the camera to record.

The 30-second buffer already exists. Modesto Police Officer Jim Reeves says its on the model clipped to his helmet.  

"Anything that I'm looking at, it's recording," says Reeves. "So, it comes in handy. Kind of hard to argue in court you didn't run a stop sign when I was watching you drive right through a stop sign, you know?"

Sheriff Jones says he also worries about privacy and the amount of video recorded.

"What is the policy?  Are we going to record 10 hours of an officer's shift?" says Jones. "I really don't want to see officers going to the bathroom or engaged in their private conversation with other officers at their lunch break or going into and seeing domestic violence victims at the worst part of their day. Those things all have to be worked out and they're just not."

Modesto Police officers record about a dozen interactions with the public each day. The video is catalogued and stored on the manufacturer's secure website. The department requires every patrol officer to record any interaction while in an enforcement capacity. Failure to do so may result in disciplinary action.

The American Civil Liberties Union California generally supports the use of body cameras, but worries they may be used as surveillance tools. The ACLU's Chauncey Smith says police should tell people if they're being recorded.  

"Give them the opportunity to provide consent," says Smith. "That way the law enforcement officer knows it's acceptable. He knows that he's not going to be encroaching on the privacy rights of the person who's being filmed. And have that whole notice and consent process recorded on camera."

The ACLU also would like officers to be prevented from reviewing video before writing a report on an incident.

Officers in Modesto can view their recordings, but cannot edit them.  Videos include domestic violence cases- a source of worry for Sheriff Jones.

Sac PD says abuse cases are often the most dangerous for law enforcement and cameras would protect officers.

Modesto PD Sergeant Gary Crawford says the cameras are a tremendous help in prosecuting cases of spousal abuse.

"Domestic violence calls- very emotional," says Crawford. "But, the emotion part is at  the beginning of the call when we meet the victim and the victim is crying and the makeup's running and the fresh injuries. To capture that when the officer walks through the door is very compelling in court."

Modesto PD policy prohibits the release of most video. If a recording is needed for a court case, the company storing it can blur images to protect victim or witness identities.

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Taser and Vievu supply 6500 agencies worldwide and say orders have increased dramatically since August 2014 -when a Ferguson, Missouri police officer shot and killed an unarmed teenager.

Sacramento Police Chief Sam Somers says cameras will help make his department better, but he says technology isn't a substitute for cooperation.

"You still have to work on relationships," says Somers. "You still have to spend the time to make sure that people know what you're doing and that you have to spend the time explaining what you're doing the transparency so people give you the benefit of the doubt -or at least give you that pause before rushing to judgment that you have that minute of pause- so that everybody can say, 'Hold on a second. We know these folks. We have a relationship with those folks and we know they're going to do the right thing.'"

The cost of the cameras can be prohibitive. Equipment and video storage for 300 Sacramento Police cameras would range from $90,000 to $270,000 a year.

If Sac PD goes online with a camera system it would be the fourth in the greater Sacramento region -- after Modesto, Manteca, and Rocklin.  




How Modesto Police Uses Body Cameras