SAN DIEGO – San Diego’s police chief wants 300 officers outfitted with body cameras by July, a move she hopes will help restore waning public trust in the department.
But how and when will the cameras be used? Who can view the footage? Will people’s privacy rights be protected?
These are some of the issues the police union and privacy rights experts want addressed before the technology is rolled out across the San Diego Police Department.
“We don’t want the data used for keeping a watch over the city. We have serious privacy concerns,” said Kellen Russoniello, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union in San Diego and Imperial counties.
Leaders of the San Diego Police Officers Association met with police supervisors on Wednesday to talk about how the cameras may be used.
Association President Brian Marvel said the union’s legal team will review the information and he expects more meetings as the department wrestles with draft policies.
The department has been rocked by numerous allegations of sexual misconduct in recent years. One officer faces criminal charges for allegedly frisking several women in a sexually inappropriate way.
The debate over whether the department was policing itself effectively prompted 10-year Chief Bill Lansdowne to announce his retirement at the end of February. New Mayor Kevin Faulconer chose Zimmerman, a 32-year department veteran, as his successor, and she quickly adopted Lansdowne’s intentions to equip officers with body cameras.
“We’re doing this for the accountability of our officers, and regaining the public’s trust that has been somewhat eroded away,” Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman said in a recent interview.
She said some of the camera policy issues to be decided include what type of interactions with the public to record, how to upload and store the video, how long to keep it, and who can access it later. The chief said she favors recording all law enforcement contacts, excluding interviews with victims of child abuse or sex crimes, and certain crime witnesses and informants.
“The policy will be ready before the end of the fiscal year, before we implement the cameras,” Zimmerman said.
Ten officers from Central Division, who work downtown and in surrounding neighborhoods, have been trying out two styles of body-worn cameras since January.
One, the AXON Body, is a small, square, fish-eye lens camera and power unit worn in the middle of the chest. The other, the AXON Flex, can be fastened by magnets to eyeglasses, a shirt collar or epaulet, or a car dashboard.
The cameras are made by Taser International, better known for its electronic stun guns. They come with recharging stations that upload the day’s video to the cloud, also maintained by Taser.
The City Council approved $1 million to buy the first 300 cameras and associated equipment this fiscal year, which ends June 30. By then, Zimmerman said, she wants all patrol officers in the Central, Southeastern and Mid-City divisions to have a camera. She said she chose the divisions because they are busy, and because of complaints about racial profiling she heard at a town-hall meeting in the southeastern area.
Taser spokesman Steve Tuttle said the company came out with a stun gun-mounted camera in 2004. They invented a bulky body camera in 2009 that included GPS and a video screen. A scaled-down version then was developed, and it is being used by 800 law enforcement agencies, Tuttle said.
Now officers can stream their video onto their own smartphones. They can hold the camera to see around corners or in dark attics. They can insert dates and labels on the video later for archive retrieval.
The Rialto Police Department in San Bernardino County was one of the first in the nation to adopt the technology, and Chief William Farrar ran a yearlong study in 2012 on its effects. Rialto Capt. Randy De Anda said complaints about officer behavior dropped 88 percent from the prior year, and the use of force by officers also declined, by 60 percent.
“We believe it was hugely successful,” De Anda said.
Scott Greenwald, a privacy law expert in Cincinnati, called body cameras “a huge technology revolution.”
“It will be as transformational as Tasers and personal radios on officers’ bodies,” said Greenwald. “They’re going to totally change the interactions between officers and the public in a very positive way.”
However, Greenwald, who serves as ALCU general counsel, cautioned that police agencies should require officers to record every contact with the public until the contact is completed.
That, he said, “will assure the integrity of the recording. … You don’t allow individual officers to ever decide when to use it.”
The City Council is to consider budgeting for about 700 more cameras on June 18.