[Marin County] Civil grand jury calls for improved body cameras

All but one of Marin County’s law enforcement agencies now employ body-worn cameras, but the majority use versions that require manual activation. A new report by the Marin County Civil Grand Jury recommends that all agencies switch to cameras that are automatically activated by various triggers, saying the use of body cameras leads to fewer complaints and that the “inexorable trend is toward liberalization of public release criteria of police video.” 

In the report released last month, titled “Body-worn Cameras and Marin Law Enforcement,” the jury found that, with the exception of Sausalito, all of the county’s law enforcement agencies use body cameras, a practice the jury recommended back in 2013.

About half of the agencies using cameras have reported a decrease in complaints against officers since adopting them; the other half have not seen a change.

The majority—seven out of 10—use Vievu systems, which have low initial and maintenance costs but a host of downsides, the jury argues. The systems have relatively low-quality images and require manual redaction—or blurring—of images to meet privacy mandates to protect the identification of victims, witnesses and minors in preparation for public release or court use. 

Better technology is necessary to address the increased demand to analyze video footage, the jury states. 

In more advanced systems, video data storage and processing systems present substantial initial and maintenance costs, but they also offer better editing software (including for redaction), security and audit logs and longer running times due to more efficient batteries. 

These systems also activate automatically, switched on by a number of activities. Turning on the vehicle light bar, opening a patrol car door, unholstering a weapon and the physical position of the officer all turn on cameras. 

Prices can reach up to $500 per camera, however, and the video data storage and processing systems are substantial additional costs. 

The jury requested that Sausalito—the only city without body cameras—adopt them, and that all law enforcement agencies employ systems with automated activation and semi-automated editing features to simplify and speed up redaction and indexing to events. 

The jury recommended that the agencies explore sharing resources or raising funds in order to reduce costs, and that the county form a buying group.

 Transparent policies

The Marin County Civil Grand Jury states that law enforcement agencies need policies to address the criteria for camera activation, the protection of privacy, pre-report viewing by officers, the retention of video files and public release protocol. 

The jury did not make specific policy recommendations, but asked that all agencies in Marin post their current policies to their websites for transparency purposes—and amend those policies as they adopt new technology and as federal and state legislation evolve. 

The report notes that S.B. 1186, currently under review on the state assembly floor, would make surveillance policies, including for body-worn cameras, subject to review and approval in a public hearing by the responsible elected body. 

“Whether or not this proposal becomes law, the desire for public input to law enforcement surveillance policies is robust and not likely to abate,” the jury wrote. 

The report also contended with the pros and cons of body-worn cameras, but came down in clear favor of their continued use. It points to a year-long study by the police department in Rialto, Calif. that found that use of force by officers wearing cameras fell by 59 percent, while reports  against officers dropped by 87 percent compared to the previous year. 

Summarizing the study’s findings, the jury wrote: “These researchers say the knowledge that events are being recorded creates self-awareness in all participants during police interactions. Individuals, both police and citizens, tend to modify their behavior when aware of ‘third-part’ surveillance by cameras.”

Video cameras can also save time when it comes to report writing, case evaluation and preparation for court testimony, the jury argued.

They did note possible downsides to the use of cameras, including altered interpersonal dynamics and the discouragement of force even when it may be necessary. And, in rural areas in particular, it could change the way law enforcement is perceived. 

“In small communities where the crime rate is low and the relationship between citizens and law enforcement has historically been close and more informal, the employment of video might result in formerly relaxed interactions becoming uncomfortably officious,” the report notes. Regardless of the size of the department, however, the widespread use of body-worn cameras across the country creates an expectation that video will be available in the case of litigation—and therefore they are a necessity, the report concludes.

Responses from the Marin County Sheriff’s Office and all Marin police departments are due by the end of July, and replies from the Central Marin Police Authority and all cities and towns by late August. 

June 7, 2018

Point Reyes Light

By Anna Guth

 

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