S. E. Williams
On Wednesday, January 27, Riverside County Sheriff Stan Sniff issued the long awaited, county-wide policy on police body cameras.
The new policy established a range of operational requirements which appear in alignment with best practices. Release of the guidelines do not signal full implementation but certainly mark a milestone, a major first step on the long journey toward full implementation of body cameras in Riverside County—a journey that began with a barely publicized body camera trial in Rialto, California in 2012 and exploded with a national demand for full deployment and use of such cameras two years later.
In 2014, many in America, particularly African Americans had had enough. After a series of high profile and questionable police killings. When 50 year-old Walter L. Scott was shot repeatedly in the back by North Charleston police officer, Michael Slager, on a warm April day in South Carolina, it was caught on camera.-
After Slager pulled Scott over for a broken brake light, Scott exited his vehicle and fled at the first opportunity. The officer pursued him on foot. When Slager caught up to Scott, the two reportedly engaged in an altercation until Scott broke and ran away again. Slager gave chase and allegedly fired his taser at Scott before shooting him at relatively close range at least five times. Three shots entered Scotts back, one, his buttocks and the other entered near his ear. Slager shot Scott dead—in the back; but, wrote in his report Scott had taken his taser.
Had an eyewitness not had the foresight to use his cell phone to video what he witnessed that day, the world might never have known the truth. It was not just Scott’s death however, but the culmination of deaths that combined to make it weigh so heavily on the hearts of the black community. The weight of it demanded a solution to help assure just treatment of everyone by those sworn to protect and serve. Cries and calls for the police to wear body cameras reverberated across the nation.
Certainly, it is not a “cure-all” to rogue police but it is at least a step toward leveling the playing field between those who are so often abused by the police as well as a fail-safe for police who are at times, falsely accused.
In May, 2015, President Barack Obama ordered the Justice Department to apply 20 million dollars toward the deployment of body cameras in police departments around the country and ultimately proposed $75 million dollars toward the effort.
In an exclusive exchange with The Voice, Riverside County Sheriff’s Department Assistant Sheriff Raymond Gregory was asked whether his agency received federal funding to aid in the full deployment of body cameras. He replied, “The Riverside County Sheriff’s Department has not received any federal funding to date for our current body-worn camera program.” According to Gregory, the Department applied to participate in a grant offered nationally in 2015, but did not receive an award. “We plan to continue to seek grant opportunities in the future as they become available, as well as explore any other appropriate funding sources.”
With the aid of federal grants, the nation has continued to make progress in the deployment of body worn cameras (BWCs). Simultaneously, however, several states around the nation are working to or have already succeeded in excluding videos made by these cameras from public records requests. Most are working to pass or have passed legislation under the guise of privacy—they claim the privacy rights of crime victims and witnesses need protecting.
The Riverside County Sheriff Department’s position on this issue appeared somewhat ambiguous. The new Riverside policy reads in part, “BWC recordings are investigative records. All requests for the release of recordings will be handled in accordance with applicable state and federal laws. All recording releases by the Department by virtue of the California Public Records Act, court order, or subpoena shall be handled by Sheriff’s Administration.”
As a point of clarity, Gregory was asked whether this means Riverside’s BWC recordings are exempt from California Public Records requests. This question and its answer are critical in light of how the issue was addressed in Riverside’s policy statement detailed above; and, particularly since the California Public Records Requests Summary published by the State Attorney General makes it abundantly clear agencies are provided “a variety of discretionary exemptions” which may be utilized as a basis for withholding records from disclosure. These exemptions generally include personnel records, investigative records, etc.
When asked for further clarity on this issue Gregory replied, “The Riverside County Sheriff’s Department considers body camera recordings made in the course of duty as investigative records. As such, we believe they are CPRA [California Public Records Act] exempt.
This position leads some critics to believe the agency is less trusting of the technology and its promised transparency than the citizens they serve.
Interestingly, in a year-long study that began in February, 2012, the Inland Empire’s own Rialto Police Department would lay the foundation for what many have come to embrace as one sure step forward in the long and arduous pursuit of justice for all.
Throughout the twelve month period, according to a Kato Institute report, 54 front-line officers were randomly assigned to wear body cameras. 980 shifts were examined, and the researchers assigned 489 officers to wear body cameras and 499 for control conditions. Rialto police officers who wore body cameras during their shifts were instructed to have them on for all interactions with the public except when dealing with informants and incidents involving sexual assaults of minors.
The data was revelatory. Both the use of force incidents by officers as well as the complaints against them fell precipitously during the trial period when compared to prior years. Police body cameras have broad support across all ethnic groups and political parties.
According to the Riverside policy statement, “Under the realization that others are constantly recording Department members in the course of their duties, the Sheriff’s Department recognizes the benefit for our employees and the public, for law enforcement personnel to have the ability to make videos that show their potentially critical viewpoint of events taking place in their presence.”
Although patrol operations have used video and audio recordings in the past, Sniff believed with the surging growth and availability of high quality recording devices it was time for the agency to formalize and standardize its policy governing the use of body worn cameras (BWC) while on duty.
BWC devices are designed to assist and complement the performance of patrol duties. They are supposed to provide an unbiased record of events. It is believed the recording will advance law enforcement objectives related to gathering and collecting evidence; supplement and corroborate written reports; protect department members from unfounded allegations of misconduct; reduce litigation; provide physical evidence to supplement what is seen or heard by employees; and, foster positive relations with the communities through improved transparency.
BWC recordings will not replace employee investigative notes taken at the scene. Also, department members will have no expectation of privacy or ownership interest in the content of the recordings.
Citizens should also be aware the policy identifies some locations where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy—including a reasonable expectation of privacy for citizens within their own homes. However, “when law enforcement officers are lawfully present in a private residence during the course of a criminal investigation or under exigent circumstances, this expectation of privacy no longer exists”. Exigent circumstances occur when the law enforcement officer has a probable cause and insufficient time to secure a warrant. There is also a reasonable expectation of privacy in medical facilities where people are receiving treatment unless the deputies are conducting a criminal investigation or responding to exigent circumstances or if medical staff requests the camera be turned off.
Each station will be responsible for developing and implementing specific operating procedures to govern the care and download process for the BWC devices assigned to that station. The operating procedures should include storage details, as well as the retrieval process for criminal investigations, civil litigation, or administrative reviews.
Law enforcement officers have powerful tools at their disposal. Included among them—arrest, imprisonment and even death as noted in a report by the Abrams Institute at the Yale School of Law. The hope of transparency many believed would come with law enforcement’s wide-spread use of BWC appears thwarted by the agency’s decision to hide behind escape clauses in the California Public Records Act. As a result, the issue of transparency and public records in relation to BWC is certain to remain controversial.
Know your rights. Review the entire Department Directive #16-003, Body Worn Camera Systems – Field Operations—Riverside County Sheriff’s Department. The document is dated January 26, 2016 and is available on line at www.documentcloud.org/documents/2699342-Body-Camera-Policy.html.