Santa Clara County to Equip Sheriff’s Deputies, Correctional Officers with Body Cameras

Prompted by an inmate’s fatal beating and outrage over police shootings, Santa Clara County has adopted a plan to equip sheriff’s deputies and jail officers with body cameras.

In a unanimous vote Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors approved a five-year $4 million contract with Taser International to outfit 1,142 officers with cameras.

Supervisor Joe Simitian first proposed body cameras at the end of 2014, a year marked by the police shooting that killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and launched the Black Lives Matter movement. A year later, the murder of San Jose inmate Michael Tyree—allegedly at the hands of three jail deputies—prompted Simitian to expand the body camera proposal to include correctional officers.

"We can watch with anguish what's happened in other communities around the country, shake our heads, and then move on, or, we can accept the responsibility to do something,” Simitian said in a statement after Tuesday’s vote. “These certainly aren't problems that are going to solve themselves. The technology is available, and I think we ought to be using it.”

The county’s body-cam policy brings it in line with other major law enforcement agencies, which began deploying the technology as an accountability tool. San Jose began rolling out body cameras in 2016—eight years behind Campbell, the first South Bay city to adopt the technology.

Civil rights advocates raised concerns about how the cameras would be deployed, arguing that the technology is only as useful as the policy guiding its use. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) expressed concerns that the cameras could become another tool for the government to spy on civilians.

“Body cameras are meant to be tools for accountability, not for general surveillance, and especially not to gather information on individuals as they exercise their First Amendment protected speech, association, or religion,” the EFF wrote in a letter co-signed by the ACLU and the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

Simitian agreed that body cameras are no panacea, but the benefits have been demonstrated in agencies that have adopted them.

“I think cameras can protect the public against officer misconduct, protect the officers against unfounded allegations, and help restore trust and confidence in law enforcement and public institutions generally,” he said.

But cameras are only one part of a larger plan to increase transparency, Simitian added. That plan includes training officers to recognize their own implicit bias, which the county has been working on. It also includes effective civilian oversight of the Sheriff’s Office and the jails, which was proposed in the wake of Tyree’s death but never enacted. A proposal for civilian oversight is expected to come before the board in June.

“If we do all three we have the best possible chance of averting tragedy and building trust,” Simitian said in a press release. “And building trust is key to keeping our law enforcement folks safe as well.”

3 Comments

  1. I don’t care how many cameras you put on cops, in jails, or patrol cars, the people that want to see injustice will see it.
    Those of us from Realville may still be tricked by the flutter of the camera, if there is not more than one view.
    In the end the call will still be made by the umpire and the other team is going to be unhappy!

  2. Police bodycams only inflame the ignorant. This is why race-baiters love them.Only people who do not understand the dynamics of violent encounters believe that bodycams on cops present any sort of “transparent”, accurate picture of any violent event.

    A camera doesn’t follow the eyes or see as an officer sees. A body camera is not an eye-tracker and it photographs a broad scene but can’t document where within that scene an officer was looking at any given instant. An officer may not see action within the camera frame that appears to be occurring “right before (his) eyes.”

    A body camera can’t acknowledge the physiological and psychological phenomena known as “tunnel vision”, often experienced under high stress. As a survival mechanism, the brain screens out of the perceptual field, information not considered vital for survival at that moment. Justification for a use of force comes from what an officer reasonably perceived, not necessarily from what a camera saw. Film captures everything and will not then convey the same sense of threat that the officer experienced using only that information his brain allowed him to process at the instant of violence.

    The camera does not record tactile cues, and “resistive tension” is critical to officers in deciding to use force. It may prompt them to suddenly apply force as a preemptive measure, when a suspect suddenly, subtly tightens up, but on camera this may look like the officer made an unprovoked attack.

    The camera can’t record the training and experience an officer brings to an encounter. Suspect behavior that may appear innocuous on film to someone unaccustomed to violence can convey the risk of mortal danger to a streetwise officer. An assaultive subject who brings his hands up may look like he’s surrendering, but is often instead assuming a combative stance, signaling his preparation for violence. The camera just captures the action, not the interpretation.

    A camera can see better in poor light than can an officer. The high-tech imaging of body cameras allows them to see and record with precision, information not possibly available to an officer at the time the incident is occurring. An officer’s assessment of the potential threat and his reaction may then be based more on experience, context, movement and a suspect’s posturing than on visual clarity. If an officer is expected to have seen as clearly as the camera did, his reaction might seem inappropriate.

    Camera angles, recording speed, sound or lack of sound, all are recorded differently on antiseptic film than these same factors are processed by an officer during a fast breaking, no-rules, violent event. Cameras also only record in 2 dimensions and depth perception, not apparent on film, is often a critical factor in officer decision making in violent situations.

    If cops are going to be on camera, let’s make acting lessons a part of Academy Training. “Alas, poor Ladoris, I knew her well, Liccardo; a banshee of infinite cop-hate and most excellent race-baiting”.

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