SANTA CLARA COUNTY, CA – With murder charges pending against three jail guards in the recent beating death of an inmate, Santa Clara County supervisors promised Tuesday to make the bold move of equipping jail guards with body cameras.
Only one other county in California — San Francisco — has announced a similar step, also in response to a scandal. Elsewhere in California, the priority has been on equipping patrol officers, law enforcement officials said. Los Angeles County tested body cameras in the jails in 2012, but the technology was less developed at the time, prompting the county to opt for fixed surveillance cameras instead.
But the death of Santa Clara County inmate Michael Tyree, whose battered body was found in his cell about three weeks ago, prompted the supervisors to take several unusual steps Tuesday to increase oversight of the jails. No one saw Tyree’s beating, although several inmates said they heard his screams.
“Once we start turning over the rocks, we’re going to find some pretty ugly stuff,” Supervisor Joe Simitian said.
The board voted unanimously to appoint a public “blue ribbon commission” to examine the jails, and approved recommendations including more fixed surveillance cameras in the jails. In addition, Simitian and two other supervisors — a voting majority — called for equipping the jail guards with body cameras. Supervisor Mike Wasserman didn’t speak at the meeting but is expected to approve the proposals when the matter returns to the board in October.
Police departments across the country have seen a reduction in citizen complaints regarding police use of force after equipping officers with body cameras.
Three correctional officers — Jereh Lubrin, Matthew Farris and Rafael Rodriguez — now face murder charges in Tyree’s killing. Prosecutors also charged them with assaulting another inmate, in effect accusing the officers of a pattern of violence.
Last year, the board set aside about $750,000 for body cameras after national protests erupted over the killing by police officers of unarmed blacks in Ferguson, Missouri, and other communities. The priority at the time was sheriff’s deputies assigned to patrol, but the county also had been exploring equipping correctional officers prior to the death of Tyree, who is white. Negotiations with unions representing the deputies and correctional officers have also already begun.
But after listening to grim accounts Tuesday about the treatment of inmates from more than 20 people, board members stressed the need to quickly increase scrutiny of the jails.
Sheriff Laurie Smith, who oversees the jails, announced after the guards’ arrest in Tyree’s death that she was immediately adding 40 hours of “crisis intervention team” training for new recruits currently enrolled in the corrections academy to help them cope better with mentally ill inmates. She also called for an anonymous hotline for staff, inmates and members of the public to report issues such as abuse, misuse of force and poor jail conditions, and asked the U.S. Department of Justice’s National Institute of Corrections for assistance in improving conditions.
Smith nodded her head in agreement repeatedly during the hearing as the supervisors praised her leadership on the issue but left without making a statement.
Lance Scimeca, the president of the Santa Clara County Correctional Peace Officers’ Association, said the board should invest taxpayers’ money in more fixed cameras, rather than body cameras for the county’s 700 correctional officers. But Scimeca also acknowledged that virtually every law enforcement officer in the nation will eventually have to wear body cameras.
Body cameras can protect correctional officers against false accusations of excessive force by inmates, Scimeca said, but they also could scare away informants, jeopardizing the safety of inmates and guards.
“I don’t think it is necessary to have a body-worn camera on a deputy in a secure lunch room, recording him/her eating a Caesar salad while unsupervised inmates get out of their cells inside an unmonitored housing unit,” said Scimeca, who is a sergeant at Elmwood jail in Milpitas.
San Francisco Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi announced in April that he would seek to equip all of that city’s jail guards with body cameras amid an FBI investigation into allegations that four sheriff’s deputies forced jail inmates to fight gladiator-style and bet on the results.
It may take several months to outfit Santa Clara County’s correctional officers with cameras and improve the jail camera surveillance system. The commission won’t meet for the first time until at least late October or perhaps even later because the board needs more time to decide on how to appoint members and organize the panel, which may include a subcommittee with broad investigatory powers.
During the two-hour hearing Tuesday, community activist Shaunn Cartwright testified that the problem with excessive force is not limited to three rogue guards and suggested the board eventually establish a permanent oversight body. She said a friend’s son shaved his head in jail so guards could not yank him around by the hair, which she claimed was commonplace. She also said after Tyree was killed, inmates had a betting pool on which of several violent guards were involved.
The father of a former inmate, William Mendoza, testified that his mentally ill son Caleb was beaten by guards and taken to Santa Clara Valley Medical Center.
“I filed a complaint and nothing was done,” Mendoza said, imploring the supervisors to “please, please keep everybody safe.”
Raj Jayadev of the civil rights group Silicon Valley De-Bug expressed concern that the commission might turn out to be merely a political ploy and said inmates are afraid to report abuse to the board for fear of retribution by guards.
Supervisor Cindy Chavez stressed the need for comprehensive change.
“We recognize there is a lot of concern about the jails,” she said, adding that Tyree’s tragic death offered the county a chance to “change its approach.”
Supervisor Ken Yeager called the situation “disturbing,” adding the county and commission should “leave no stone unturned,” especially when it comes improving the treatment of mentally ill inmates. Tyree was homeless, mentally ill and jailed for a probation violation while awaiting space in a mental health treatment facility.
“I think we all understand,” Yeager said, “that perhaps Michael Tyree never should have been in jail.”