As officer-involved shootings routinely make headlines, protesters around the country have responded by shutting down highways, clogging city streets and filling up Twitter feeds with frustrated hashtags. It was in this atmosphere that Santa Cruz County Sheriff Jim Hart told a community meeting, “In my 27 years in law enforcement, I have never seen this level of public concern about police integrity.”
That same afternoon seven months ago, Hart announced efforts to partner more closely with groups and individuals outside the department. The Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office has since become the first agency in California to implement all 79 of President Barack Obama’s 21st Century Policing recommendations. Hart also assigned two 20-person task forces—one internal team and another of community members—to identify the most effective ways for the sheriff’s department to increase trust and transparency. The six-month process wrapped up in June, and Deputy Chief Craig Wilson says the findings all boil down to a “culture change.”
The sheriff’s department report will be released at an event on Wednesday, Aug. 17 at the sheriff’s office community room on Soquel Drive. It’s split into six pillars, like “Building Trust and Legitimacy,” “Technology and Social Media,” and “Officer Wellness and Safety.” A list of 18 proposed changes—some of which are already in effect—includes taking in more performance feedback, creating a use-of-force review panel and having deputies interact with young people in parks to create a safe and comfortable space. It also includes the decision to introduce an exciting, but sometimes controversial new technology: body cameras.
The technology has been hailed by some for the transparency it offers, and castigated by others for potential privacy issues. Before making their decision, sheriff officials met with the district attorney and public defender, as well as members of both the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to ensure they are doing “what’s best for the community,” Wilson says.
National ACLU members began questioning the pros and cons of body cameras two years ago after Obama’s announcements in support of body cameras, which the president followed with various funding proposals. Sure, the technology could better shine a light on police brutality, but ACLU leaders worried that cameras could end up as just another tool for government surveillance.
The civil rights organization has decided in 2016 that the benefits outweigh the risks. “Primarily, body cameras should be used as tools for accountability, transparency, and building trust in communities, which we think is clearly not there,” says Tessa D’Arcangelew, a Northern California ACLU spokesperson.
Generally speaking, cameras, which sheriff deputies expect to start wearing in January, could provide more clarity in use-of-force situations, like shootings. “They’re going to give the community more of a reference point,” says Deputy Sheriff Daniel Cruz, who served on the sheriff’s task force. “Instead of a ‘he/she said, I said’ situation, there’s going to be a capturing of the moment.”
So far this year, there have been 564 documented instances of people being killed by police in the U.S.; in 151 of those, the deceased was unarmed, according to a Washington Post database. Since 2010, the sheriff’s department has had two fatal officer-involved shootings, the latest being last year, when a mentally ill high schooler reportedly walked out of his house pointing a rifle at a deputy.
The body cameras won’t record constantly. There are specific instances when officers will turn them on, including whenever deputies anticipate they’ll have to use force during an arrest, when they encounter resistance or when they’re conducting a search.
“We’ve struck a good balance between individual privacy and the need to record events of high public interest,” says Wilson. He adds that body cameras will increase public confidence and may deter “poor behavior” by people they encounter.
In San Diego, for example, officers saw a 40.5 percent decrease in complaints and a 46.5 percent decrease in use of force after adopting body cameras, according to a 2015 department report.
Body cameras are “the way of the future for police departments,” says Watsonville Police Sergeant Tony Magdayao. Both Watsonville and Scotts Valley police plan to implement body cameras within the next two years. Capitola police have had body cameras for a year now, and, according to Lt. Steve Walpole, it’s been “absolutely positive.” Santa Cruz Police Community Relations Specialist Joyce Blaschke says Santa Cruz officers are also “considering” body cameras.
Of course, body cameras haven’t increased public confidence everywhere. In Fresno, Californians were outraged to see police-released body camera footage last month of an unarmed 19-year-old being shot multiple times in the back. In Chicago, a police officer was not recording with his body camera when he shot and killed an 18-year-old, who was unarmed—just one of many cases nationwide in which an officer used force on someone with their camera turned off. (Chicago police have stripped the involved officers of their police authority pending an investigation and, more recently, released a different officer’s body camera footage, which shows at least two officers opening fire.)
Also, an audio-free video, filmed from someone’s chest, often provides an imperfect picture of what actually happened.
At this point, the ACLU’s biggest concern is with the draft policy, which should get a final approval from the sheriff’s office in January. Deputies can review their footage, according to the policy, prior to making an official statement. Some cities, like San Francisco and Richmond, don’t allow that, and D’Arcangelew worries it will only let officers tailor their accounts to whatever evidence is, or isn’t, available.
“It’s not the best way to get at the truth of what happened,” said D’Arcangelew. “Body cameras offer one truth of what happened. What happened in the officer’s mind is another view.”
Wilson argues that they have encouraged their deputies to review evidence while completing reports “for the purpose of being accurate.” About half the agencies with body-worn cameras allow their officers to view data in preparation of completing reports, he says.
Peter Gelblum, chair of the Santa Cruz County ACLU chapter, met with Wilson and Hart about implementing body cameras. “It’s going to add a lot of trust and accountability,” says the Boulder Creek resident who calls the technology an “excellent development.”
In late June, the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors authorized purchasing the cameras, which come out to $100,000. The sheriff’s department is in price negotiations with VIEVU, a body camera company, after vetting half a dozen suppliers. They currently have a dozen deputies testing the cameras in compliance with California Department of Justice guidelines.
Rico Baker, a member of the citizen’s task force and the Veterans for Peace Santa Cruz Chapter, says body cameras are “dicey and complex,” depending on how they’re used, yet he adds that the development will be a positive one if they’re used as promised.
“There’s an inherent question,” Baker says, “about the sheriff being someone who takes care of people or someone who just rules over people. Sheriff Hart has shown that he wants to help people and that he doesn’t want to be in that mode of just dealing out punishment.”
Santa Cruz County Sheriff officials will present the “Final Report to the Public: 21st Century Policing Task Force” at 10 a.m. on Wednesday, Aug. 17, in the sheriff’s office community room at 5200 Soquel Drive, Soquel.