In the months since police in this city began wearing body cameras to protests, the men and women rallying against law enforcement’s use of force have all but stopped getting in the faces of police officers.
Instead, they zero in on the little black box in the center of officers’ chests and scream.
Every second of chanting, shouting, railing against the recent deaths of civilians at the hands of law enforcement is recorded. Every moment logged and stored indefinitely by police.
It helps keep everyone on their best behavior, said Stockton Police Sgt. Larry Lane. And if someone gets out of hand – be it an officer or member of the public – it will be captured on tape.
Calls for police body cameras have increased in volume and frequency over the last several months, following the deadly police shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. Conflicting accounts of what happened the day Officer Darren Wilson shot Brown have led to mass protests and demands for answers that civil rights advocates say could have been provided had Wilson been wearing a body camera.
After a grand jury declined to indict Wilson, Brown’s family issued a call to “ensure that every police officer working the streets in this country wears a body camera.” Last week, President Barack Obama proposed that the federal government reimburse local law enforcement agencies half the cost of buying cameras and storing video, a plan the White House estimates would cost $75 million over three years to help purchase 50,000 devices.
Of the dozen or so law enforcement agencies in the greater Sacramento area, only Stockton and Folsom equip police with body cameras meant to record officers’ interactions with the public. Rocklin will join them in a matter of months.
The Sacramento Police Department is developing a pilot program to test different cameras on volunteer officers. So, too, are agencies in Auburn, Citrus Heights, Davis and Lodi. The Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department is researching camera brands and models, as are Elk Grove and Roseville police.
It’s difficult to draw broad conclusions about how the use of body cameras might affect police use of force and dealings with the public. Even where the cameras are being used locally, that use is sporadic: Stockton has been requiring the cameras only for crowd control and riot response, and officers determine when those cameras are turned on. In Folsom, officers choose whether to wear the cameras.
But experts, advocates and officers caution against counting on these cellphone-size recording devices to completely eliminate controversy over officer-involved shootings and use of force in general. In many cases where footage has been available – often recorded on witnesses’ cellphones – violent police encounters perceived by some as excessive use of force did not result in officer convictions.
In 1991, a jury acquitted the Los Angeles police officers who beat Rodney King despite video footage that raised questions about the severity of their actions. Last week, a grand jury decided not to indict a New York police officer in the death of Eric Garner, whose final moments were captured by witnesses with cellphones.
“I think five, 10 years ago, it would have been a big deal to go out there with cameras,” Lane said. “But now, whenever we’re out, everyone’s got their cellphone on us, so I think that you have to believe that you’re being recorded at all times, and if you don’t act appropriately, shame on you.”
Some officers worry the cameras may come at the expense of other police programs. Experts also warn that adopting the technology raises its own set of concerns about privacy, transparency and the relationship between the public and the police.
“Body cameras provide video evidence of an encounter, but they won’t always tell the whole story,” said Peter Bibring, the director of police practices for the American Civil Liberties Union of California. “It’s unlikely that a camera can show the details of what’s going on if an officer is on the ground grappling with somebody. A camera is never going to show you what an officer is thinking or feeling.”
‘Like muscle memory’
And yet, body cameras are in higher demand than ever.
Over the past several months, police said, residents throughout Northern California have spoken at community meetings and outreach events, asking police to adopt body cameras.
Rocklin, which has a force of 52 with 32 on patrol, just received 19 cameras. Capt. Lon Milka said the department is finalizing its policy on camera use and data storage before distributing the devices. Officers will be trained to use them to the point where it becomes “like muscle memory,” Milka said. “Whenever there’s any kind of officer-initiated activity, the officer will turn the camera on and record.”
Stockton has had about eight cameras in use for more than a year. Given the limited number, said department spokesman Officer Joe Silva, the agency initially decided to deploy them only in crowd-control situations, which have potential for conflict. A private donor recently offered to stock the entire department with an additional 250 cameras, Silva said. They will be fully operational by spring.
“It’s definitely going to help,” said Officer Andrew Smith, who wears a body camera in his role as a mobile field force officer. “People tend to behave, all the way around, better when they know they’re being recorded.”
It’s not clear what kind of cameras Stockton will use to outfit the rest of its officers. The ones MFF officers use now are Taser-brand devices. They’re no larger than a cellphone and sit mounted on the front of an officer’s uniform in the middle of his or her chest. A fish-eye lens captures wide-angle shots. To turn it on, an officer presses a big button in the center of the device.
“It’s cop-proof,” Smith said. “There’s not a whole big manual that you have to learn. If you grow up playing video games, or you have a smartphone, this thing is a no-brainer.”
Every camera has a downside: These devices wouldn’t get as clear a view if an officer drew a weapon, for instance, Lane said, because the video would be obscured by the gun. Other devices are made to be worn at eye-level. Some come equipped with night vision.
Before deciding which camera to purchase, there are a lot of questions an agency must consider, said the ACLU’s Bibring – questions of camera specs as well as policy.
In Folsom, where body cameras have been in use since 2008, there are about 15 devices – not nearly enough to accommodate the 40 patrol officers on the force, Sgt. Jason Browning said. So, the department allows officers to voluntarily strap them on. Although most officers like wearing the cameras, Browning said, there are no policies dictating who must wear the equipment or when to turn it on.
There isn’t a hard and fast policy in Stockton, either. Although officers are assigned to wear the devices, they can use their discretion in turning them on, Lane said. The thinking, he said, was that most officers in the mobile field force are veterans who can sense when they are needed.
When the cameras go departmentwide, he added, rules will be put in place so everyone knows how and when to use them, and no one can be accused of selective recording.
Public access an issue
Not everyone agrees on what situations call for recording. Some law enforcement agencies think cameras should be used selectively in situations with the potential for violence.
Bibring, on the other hand, argues that the cameras should be turned on for any and all encounters with the public. He said departments lose credibility unless the element of choice is eliminated.
“A camera that is used in that fashion is not a tool for police accountability; it’s a tool to protect an officer against wrongful accusation only,” Bibring said. “If it’s a tool for accountability, officers have to be made to wear them, otherwise officers will just turn them off or refuse to put them on when they think they’re bending the rules.”
Lane said he wishes body cameras had been in use in Ferguson before the Brown shooting.
“I wish (Wilson) had been wearing a camera,” Lane said. “Sure, there’s eyewitnesses, but we don’t know what those people’s motivations are for their testimony. You don’t know what they saw or didn’t see. If there was a camera, you would know and people would know whether they should be protesting or not. Whether there was a valid reason (for the shooting) or not.”
In 2012, the police department in Rialto, San Bernardino County, began a yearlong experiment in which it assigned body cameras to half its 54 officers at random every week. In that year, the department saw use of force drop by 60 percent. It also saw a sharp dip in complaints filed against officers: Three were filed during the year officers wore the cameras, compared with 24 from the year before.
Advocates for the technology point to this study as proof that the cameras work in protecting the police, too.
Sacramento police union President Dustin Smith said local officers are largely in favor of the cameras, because they have been shown to shield officers from allegations of misconduct and restore the public’s trust in policing. But, he added, officials should consider the long-term costs of adopting the technology before jumping on the body-camera bandwagon.
Depending on how long videos are stored, the amount of storage space needed to accommodate the data collected will increase over time. Smith said the money promised by the president won’t begin to cover the cost to police agencies that adopt such technology.
“In the end, that’s money coming out of the general fund that is currently going toward other programs that are working and helping improve public safety,” Smith said. “Something has to give.”
Another question facing law enforcement agencies involves public access. Theoretically, every video produced by a body camera is a government record, Bibring said, and, therefore, public. But in many cities, media and resident requests for body camera footage have been denied because police agencies argue they do not have the staff, money or ability to redact and blur images on hundreds of hours of video that may violate people’s privacy rights.
Seattle recently threatened to disband its nascent body-camera program, citing the potential for overwhelming public records requests that would drain police resources. The concern was prompted by a public-disclosure request by an anonymous citizen asking for details on every 911 dispatch on which officers are sent and all videos from patrol-car and body cameras. The pilot program was revived after the citizen agreed to modify his request.
“The more devices come out, the more difficult it’s going to be to balance privacy with being transparent,” said Davis Police spokesman Lt. Paul Doroshov. “How do you balance the public wanting to know exactly what goes on with policing and putting out video that shows people in some of their darkest, most private moments?”
Call The Bee’s Marissa Lang at (916) 321-1038. Follow her on Twitter at @Marissa_Jae.
Quick body-cam facts
Which local police agencies use body cameras?
Stockton and Folsom are the only agencies that currently use body cameras. Rocklin will begin using them in a matter of months. In Stockton, only the mobile field force, or MFF, which responds to protests, riots and crowd-control situations, uses the cameras. In Folsom, officers can volunteer to put the cameras on. They are not required to wear them.
Are other agencies going to get body cameras?
Several local agencies are developing pilot programs for volunteer officers to determine whether they want to adopt the technology. These include the Sacramento, Auburn, Citrus Heights, Davis and Lodi police departments.
Can members of the public also record interactions with police?
Yes. In California, the public is legally allowed to record interactions with police. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, police have no expectation of privacy while on duty, meaning they can be recorded at any time. But ACLU attorneys urge caution when recording your own interactions with police: It’s legal as long as it’s not interfering with an investigation.