Santa Rosa OKs police body cams

The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors approved three five-year contracts totaling $1.1 million to equip 241 sworn county sheriff’s officers with body-worn cameras on Tuesday.

The contracts with Taser International, Inc. include software management, cloud storage services and the cameras.

The sheriff’s office will pay $250,000 of the first year’s upfront costs, state and federal funding will provide $104,414 and the county will pay the balance out of the general fund over the following four years, sheriff’s Capt. Clint Shubel said.

The cameras have been hailed as unbiased observers that record interactions with law enforcement personnel and the public, thereby increasing transparency to the officers’ and citizens’ statements and conduct.

Law enforcement officers also can use the videos to write reports, prepare to testify at trial and assist prosecutors and defense attorneys, sheriff’s officials said.

The most significant use of the cameras is to provide insights into critical incidents, such as dismissing erroneous eyewitness accounts and validating the sequence of events, according to sheriff’s officials.

Equipping law enforcement officers with body-worn cameras was among the recommendations made following the fatal shooting of 13-year-old Andy Lopez by sheriff’s Deputy Erick Gelhaus on Oct. 22, 2013.

The sheriff’s office prepared a proposal in June 2013 to test the cameras, and conducted a pilot program with them between February and May.

The sheriff’s office made two presentations to the Community and Local Law Enforcement Task Force that was formed after the Lopez killing.

Task force members said they were concerned how the program would be implemented, how the data would be secured and what the policies would be regarding the use of the cameras.

The decision was made to purchase the Taser Axon body camera as the most reliable, cost-effective and most functional body-worn camera for the sheriff’s office, Shubel said.

The sheriff’s office prepared a draft policy for the use of the cameras, and the policy is expected to be finalized after full implementation of the camera program.

The final policy will be developed after evaluating input from the task force, Deputy Sheriff’s Association, citizen groups and other county representatives.

Jim Duffy of Rohnert Park was the lone public speaker regarding the camera program today. Duffy asked the board of supervisors to delay approving the $1.1 million contracts until a proper policy is in place.

Duffy said law enforcement officers could turn off the cameras at their discretion or when they believe they are no longer needed, and the cameras can be misused by plainclothes officers to spy on the public.

Duffy said the public cannot get access to the video without a court order or approval of the sheriff’s office. The cameras have the potential to do more harm than good, Duffy said:

 “They are a great idea and we need them but we need a proper policy first.”

After the hearing on the issue, Shubel said law enforcement officers depend on interaction with the public to gather intelligence, and citizens may be less likely to provide information on camera.

Officers might want to turn off the cameras when dealing with confidential informants and sexual assault victims, Shubel said.

The body-worn cameras might be provided in the future to corrections officers in the county jail, Shubel said.

The supervisors voted 3-0 to approve the contracts.