Police Union Challenge Halts SJPD Body Camera Program

SAN JOSE, CA – The failure to charge police officers in two separate killings of unarmed black men has sparked protests across the country, and along with them, calls to outfit cops with body cameras. It’s with this backdrop that the San Jose Police Department received praise last week for 12 officers volunteering to wear body cameras as part of a pilot program.

What several reports failed to mention, however, is that internal politics has temporarily derailed the program.

SJPD’s Research and Development division has acquired three types of cameras, including one worn on pairs of glasses. Steps were being taken to begin testing the devices in the field, but in late October the Police Officers Association challenged the process, arguing that it should be negotiated as a “meet and confer” issue.

On Oct. 22, Sgt. Elle Washburn sent an email to stakeholders in the process to test body-worn cameras, or BWC:

“Our office learned last week that our BWC Pilot is currently on hold,” Washburn wrote. “The Chief received word from our Union that the BWC Pilot is now a ‘meet and confer’ issue. This came to our office without warning, and I apologize for any inconvenience this may cause. We currently have a meeting mid-November with the Union to discuss the pilot.”

San Jose Inside spoke with department spokesperson Sgt. Heather Randol and it seems that meeting has still yet to take place has not led to an agreement. (UPDATE: Randol sent an email to San Jose Inside on Tuesday morning clarifying her earlier comments about the department meeting with the police union. “The POA has met with the Department to discuss some of the meet and confer issues,” she wrote. “We have not had the final meeting to finalize policy issues but there have been 2 meetings in which the POA brought up their concerns.”)

Calls for comment to POA officials were not returned. A change in union leadership will begin Jan. 1, when Paul Kelly takes over the role of president from Jim Unland.

Washburn said in her email that she hopes the program will start in “early 2015,” but both she and Randol say there is no specific timeline.

San Jose’s independent police auditor, LaDoris Cordell, applauded the department and Police Chief Larry Esquivel for moving forward on acquiring body-worn cameras, noting that they can help protect citizens from potential abuse as well as officers and the city from false claims and lawsuits. But she called the POA’s attempts to delay implementation “shameful.”

“This is all political,” Cordell said. “It has nothing to do with the efficacy of cameras. It’s shameful.”

SJPD reportedly acquired two BWC systems made by Taser International and one by Vievu. The latter company supplies cameras to the New York City Police Department and thousands of other agencies, according to news reports.

Some studies suggest that wearable cameras reduce citizen complaints against police officers and reduce the chance that cops will resort to violence. For years Cordell has lobbied for their use, especially with the increasing number of officer-involved shootings.

But as the killing of Eric Garner showed, the problem in some cases isn’t a lack of evidence. Garner’s death was ruled a homicide by a coroner, after Staten Island police aggressively took him to the ground and cut off his air supply. But a grand jury handed down no indictment against the officer who put him in a chokehold.

Spurred by the shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., the White House announced a plan to get 50,000 officers in the US to wear body cameras. President Obama proposed a three-year $263 million program to increase the use of wearable cameras, expand training for police and provide resources for law enforcement reform. The program sets aside $75 million specifically for small lapel-mounted cameras. Local law enforcement agencies would match half the cost, if they qualify for some of that federal money.

From San Jose Inside