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Are We Ready for Body-Worn Cameras in Santa Cruz?
by Steve Pleich
Sunday Apr 16th, 2017 4:12 PM
SCPD and City Considering Deployment
At the end of last year, the Santa Cruz Police Department issued a seven page report to the Santa Cruz City Council drawing connections between the department’s early and ongoing adoption of the community policing model and the goals and recommendations outlined by a federal task force convened by former President Barack Obama. Major recommendations coming out of that model included moving forward in obtaining officer body-worn cameras within a year and reconvening a Chief’s Advisory Committee to provide citizen input into the ongoing modernization process. The committee has now been named and, in my view as an appointed member of that committee, the deployment of body-worn cameras must be one of the first and primary issues on which citizen input should be offered both to Chief Vogel and to the new chief who will shortly succeed him.

In recent years, the use of police body-worn-cameras by police has received extensive media attention. These devices are commonly believed to achieve several aims, including: reducing police use-of-force and excessive complaints against officers, enhancing police legitimacy and transparency, increasing prosecution rates and improving evidence capture by the police. The publicity has been so great that many go on to assume that cameras can fundamentally change ‘flawed’ police practices. Indeed, deployment of body-worn cameras has been suggested as a means to prevent racial profiling and as a mechanism through which “dented public confidence” could be restored. Although racial profiling by our department has not been a glaring issue, certainly recent events have “dented” both public confidence and trust.

In terms of the prospective benefits to both the department and the community with respect to more accountable and transparent police practices, a study undertaken by the City of Rialto, California is very instructive. Although Rialto is half again more populous than Santa Cruz at roughly 100,000 residents, their number of sworn officers at 115 compares favorably our department’s 96. Their experiment tested, for the first time, the effect of mobile cameras on police use-of-force and citizens’ complaints. The outcomes suggested a reduction in the total number of incidents of use-of-force compared to control-conditions. They observed nearly ten times more citizens’ complaints in the 12-months prior to the experiment, compared to any of the three years prior to the experiment. In practical terms, the study provided law enforcement agencies with a methodology that may substantially reduce force responses, as well as reducing the incidence of complaints and positively affect police-public encounters. The study acknowledged that the deployment of body-worn cameras may raise ethical issues as well as pose problems of privacy and confidentiality, but the study concluded that, on average, the benefits of using body-worn-cameras outweigh the costs.

We are fortunate that our community is policed by a department that has no historical pattern of excessive force nor brutality. Yet, instances have arisen, like the tragic officer involved death of Sean Arlt, which raise serious questions about accountability and transparency that may have been militated had body-worn cameras been in department wide use at the time. Moreover, the participation by our department in the recent Department of Homeland Security inspired ICE raids and the incomplete and misleading reports that followed highlight the need for a visually recorded account of police procedures generally. As a community, we are still woefully uniformed about the precise circumstances of Sean’s death and the participation by our department in the ICE raids. In my view, the deployment of body worn cameras at the earliest practical time will move our department and our community closer to the full accountability and transparency we owe to those who protect and serve and to ourselves as a law-abiding community. This is a shared responsibility that serves both public safety and public policy.

Steve Pleich is a Santa Cruz resident and a member of the Chief’s Advisory Committee