The Sacramento Police Department is well on its way to adopting a new policing method that officials hope will help improve community trust in law enforcement: body cameras.
In a Tuesday night budget presentation, Police Chief Sam Somers Jr. proposed a new program that would strap officers with cameras and require that they record their interactions with civilians.
As Somers asked for a budget increase of $3.6 million and 22 officers, City Council members met the chief with a litany of questions related to gang prevention efforts, diversifying the police force and reopening shuttered substations to act as community outposts.
But the body cameras drew few questions and little resistance.
Communities, law enforcement and politicians nationwide have called for the use of body cameras in an effort to make policing more transparent after several incidents of alleged officer misconduct, including the recent deaths of Freddie Gray in Baltimore and Walter Scott in South Carolina.
Putting the new technology into the hands – or onto the uniforms – of sworn officers has been a project several months in the works for Sacramento, which began a pilot program last year.
“It will give us more accountability,” Somers told the council. “So we can support not only what the officers are doing ... but also give that transparency we’re trying to get with our community.”
Of the dozen or so law enforcement agencies in the greater Sacramento area, only Folsom and Rocklin – plus nearby Stockton – have equipped police with body cameras. The policies of how such cameras are used vary by department – a disconnect that American Civil Liberties Union expert Peter Bibring has said could make for a dangerous patchwork.
Bibring, who serves as director of police practices for the American Civil Liberties Union of California, has argued that the cameras should be turned on for any and all encounters with the public. He said departments lose credibility when they allow officers to choose when to turn the cameras on and off.
“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.”
For many departments, the problem is funding. Last year, President Barack Obama proposed that the federal government reimburse local agencies half the cost of buying cameras and storing video, a plan the White House has estimated would cost $75 million over three years and help purchase 50,000 devices.
Some police departments look to use grant money, but they have problems maintaining the cameras once grant funds run out. By including body cameras in its budget request for the 2015-16 fiscal year, the Sacramento Police Department is attempting to secure a guaranteed revenue stream to support the cameras and accompanying technology required to operate them and log countless hours of video.
Long term, Somers said, that could be a problem. “One of our big challenges will be increasing technology costs over time,” Somers said, alluding to the fact that storing video may be costly long term.
Depending on how long the recordings are stored, the amount of digital storage space needed to accommodate data collection will increase over time. Police union President Dustin Smith has said the money promised by the president won’t begin to cover the cost to police agencies that adopt such technology.
“Deploying the cameras department-wide will require a significant initial investment and result in ongoing cost to support additional technology staff to manage the program data,” according to the budget. “Staff is evaluating potential funding sources for this program including federal grants funds.”
In the Police Department’s proposal, $1 million would be divided between the body camera program and a new recruitment effort hailed as a means of increasing diversity on the force.
The cameras, according to the budget, would “supplement existing in-car camera technology,” which record police activity from the dashboards of police cruisers.
Several community members who attended Tuesday night’s packed meeting voiced support for increased police surveillance.
“These are times of growing mistrust,” said the Rev. Daryl Collins of the Voices of Inspiration Ministries, a member of the Cops and Clergy initiative that pairs police with members of local faith communities. “If there’s a confrontation, a person’s social or ethnic distinction ... is more of a determinant of public opinion than the facts that led to that conflict.”
But experts have said it’s difficult to draw broad conclusions about how the use of body cameras might impact police use of force or how officers deal with the public.
In 2012, the police department in Rialto began a yearlong experiment in which it assigned body cameras to half of its 54 officers at random every week. In that year, the department saw use of force drop by 60 percent. It also saw a dramatic decline in complaints filed against officers: Three were filed during the year officers wore the cameras, compared to 24 from the year before.
Advocates for the technology have pointed to this study as proof that the cameras work in protecting police as well as residents.
When the department was beginning its pilot program, Smith said officers in Sacramento have been largely in favor of the new technology because they have proved to shield officers from allegations of abuse and misconduct.
But a lingering 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 privacy rights.
Last month, a state Assembly committee amended a bill multiple times to allow police officers in most cities to review body camera footage before they provide statements about incidents involving force.
Sacramento’s City Council asked Somers on Tuesday to return with a more complete proposal that included suggested amendments and answered several questions the council posed about community policing and collaborative programming. The council will vote on a final version of the Police Department’s budget in coming weeks.