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Signal Hill and Long Beach police departments considering ‘cop cams’

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Sean Belk
-Staff Writer-

Photos courtesy Wolfcom USA Signal Hill and Long Beach police departments may implement body-worn cameras, such as this one by manufacturer Wolfcom USA, starting next year pending the outcome of initial studies to determine policy for deployment, vendor selection and costs.

Photos courtesy Wolfcom USA
Signal Hill and Long Beach police departments may implement body-worn cameras, such as this one by manufacturer Wolfcom USA, starting next year pending the outcome of initial studies to determine policy for deployment, vendor selection and costs.

Local police officers may soon start wearing small cameras attached to their collars or sunglasses to video-record patrol stops, calls for service and other on-duty incidents for the purposes of keeping police and the public more accountable, according to police officials.

Long Beach and Signal Hill police departments are currently conducting studies to determine policy, vendor selection and costs of the new equipment. Police officials from both departments say they may start testing body-worn cameras on duty after committees make recommendations based on the initial studies.

The Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), on the other hand, has already started testing body cameras paid for through private donations while the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department (LASD) plans to soon launch a six-month pilot program.

Law-enforcement agencies have considered using body-worn cameras for years, however disputed officer-involved shootings, such as the one in Ferguson, MO that sparked civil unrest, and other incidents of alleged excessive force have put pressure on police departments across the nation to start using the body cameras, also called “cop cams.”

Technological advancements in the last five years have also made the video-recording devices more accessible and affordable for law-enforcement agencies.

Police officials say that video recordings may aid investigators and prosecutors to more clearly determine what occurs out on the field and can be used as evidence in court and administrative hearings, particularly in cases of alleged police misconduct.

Studies show that both police officers and the public are likely to act more appropriately when they know that they are being recorded. Video recordings may also dissuade individuals from filing false accusations, saving police departments from having to fight costly litigation.

Still, issues over privacy rights and policy, such as when police officers would be required to turn the cameras off and on, still have yet to be worked out.

Signal Hill Police Chief Michael Langston said in a phone interview that using body-worn cameras will be a “natural progression” for his department, which has already used in-car cameras and digital audio recorders for at least 15 years. He said video recordings would help police be more “effective” and would provide more evidence in investigations.

“This department has a long history of using in-car cameras and digital recorders to record officers’ contacts with the public, and they’ve always been a very effective tool in helping to decipher questions about things that happen out in the field,” he said. “The cameras are really an extension of that, and they’re just a great evidentiary tool.”

Langston said a committee of police officials is currently testing different types of cameras in addition to determining the right policy for implementing the new equipment, particularly with regard to privacy.

“I think there are some issues that need to be addressed regarding privacy,” he said. “The cameras in the cars are limited to where they go, [but] the officer wearing a body cam may go into places where there might need to be more scrutiny as far as privacy concerns go. It’s important that we look at this from a policy perspective and make sure we develop an appropriate policy for the deployment of cameras.”

Langston said the police department has already budgeted for body-worn cameras in the City’s two-year budget that was passed by the City Council last June. He said the department plans to purchase the equipment and begin field deployment sometime during Fiscal Year 2015-16, which begins in July of next year.

Though an official funding amount and source for body-worn cameras has yet to be determined, Langston said the equipment costs anywhere from $2,000 to $4,000 per unit and the department’s entire force of nearly 30 sworn police officers would be outfitted with the new technology. He said all patrol officers would be outfitted with cameras but it’s uncertain whether detectives and other field personnel would be wearing them.

In a separate phone interview, Signal Hill Lt. Ron Sagmit confirmed that police personnel will receive full training on the use of body-worn cameras in October. He said a few officers have already invested in some hardware and have begun testing it.

Long Beach Cmdr. Paul LeBaron, who is leading a committee to look into the new technology, said the Long Beach Police Department has tested body-worn cameras in “scenario-based settings,” but police have yet to wear them on duty.

LeBaron said the committee is currently in the process of finalizing recommendations to Police Chief Jim McDonnell, who will ultimately determine whether the department goes through with purchasing and deploying the body cameras.

“We’ve had a committee together for several months now, and we are exploring the options that are out there and the possibility of deploying body-worn cameras to our department,” LeBaron said. “We have looked at several different types of body cameras that we think might meet our needs, and we’re in the process right now of finalizing our recommendation.”

LeBaron, who couldn’t confirm when or if a pilot program would be launched, said body cameras have yet to be budgeted because the department is still determining costs, which may include purchasing the cameras and upgrading technological infrastructure. He added that, once a policy is set in place for when officers would be required to record video, the department will have a better understanding of how much money will be needed for storing video data.

“Once we know what we’re going to record, that will give us an idea of how much database we’re going to need to pay for,” LeBaron said.

He said the cameras would provide officers with a level of “protection” from false accusations. “Now, it won’t have to be [the officer’s] word versus another person’s word,” LeBaron said. “It can actually be shown on video.

The body-worn cameras would also provide a check for police officers, prompting them to act more professionally during incidents, he said.

“Officers who know they’re being recorded are going to do their very best to portray the professionalism that’s expected of a police officer, which I believe that they already do, but this will simply enhance that mindset that they know they’re on camera,” LeBaron said.

He said the video recordings would also help cut down on court time by providing more evidence in prosecution and clarifying incidents in which situations and testimony are uncertain.

“It’s important to acknowledge that not everyone is either telling the truth or lying,” LeBaron said. “There are a lot of times where we deal with situations that are very traumatic for people, and they’ll make a statement to us, thinking in their own mind that this is exactly what happened or this is what [they] saw ![Body-worn cameras] will help us clarify things that other people may or may not have seen the way that they thought they did.”

Stephen Downing, a retired Los Angeles police deputy and Long Beach resident, however, said Long Beach police should be implementing the body-worn cameras already, given the department’s track record for claims of excessive force.

He noted that the department budgeted $1.5 million for new Tasers but hasn’t budgeted any money yet for body-worn cameras.

“The excessive force that we’ve seen on video tape is just extreme, and this subject has been discussed,” Downing said. “They want more Tasers that cost us money, but they haven’t budgeted for cameras, even for an experimental program.”

He said the department had to recently pay nearly $500,000 for two cases that involved allegations of excessive force with Tasers, adding that the incidents “may have never happened” if the officers knew they were being recorded.

Additionally, Downing noted that Long Beach has had a string of officer-involved shootings in recent years. Last year, there were a total of 15 officer-involved shootings in Long Beach that didn’t involve animals or accidental firing of weapons, nearly double the amount that occurred in the previous year, according to a report on year-end statistics released by LBPD in January. So far this year, there have been three officer-involved shootings, according to LBPD spokesperson Nancy Pratt.

Families of two men shot and killed by Long Beach police in separate incidents last year are suing the police department, with attorneys for one of the cases asking for $10 million, claiming police used excessive force.

Chief Langston said Signal Hill, on the other hand, hasn’t experienced an officer-involved shooting in several years or at least since he was hired in 2011.

The Long Beach Police Officers Association could not be reached for comment before the Signal Tribune’s deadline.

Meanwhile, the LAPD has already completed a 90-day trial for using body-worn cameras from a specific vendor with another 90-day trial with another vendor to be completed soon. The two vendors are Taser International, Inc. and Coban Technologies.

According to police officials, the department raised $1.3 million in private donations from such organizations as the Los Angeles police officers’ union and the Los Angeles Dodgers to pay for the pilot program.

Sgt. Dan Gomez of the tactical technology section for the LAPD said the department currently has 32 body-worn cameras in use out in the field, adding that the overall assessment of the new technology has so far been “positive, although not perfect.”

He added that the department has an “interim policy” in place and plans to develop an official policy while working with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) once a particular vendor is selected.

“We’re being open and transparent about it is the bottom line,” Gomez said. “We have implemented the cameras in terms of these tests and are making a recommendation to the chief of police.”

The ACLU, which supports the use of body-worn cameras but only for the purpose of police accountability rather than for any kind of systematic surveillance, has listed a number of policy recommendations on its website for the deployment of body-worn cameras.

Recommendations include ensuring that police are not allowed to “edit on the fly,” making sure police notify the public and taking measures to limit threats to privacy. Other issues include use in domestic-violence situations and how videos would be released to the public.

Gomez said a survey in which individuals were asked questions about the use of body-worn cameras by the LAPD would be released soon.

In the next few months, the LASD is planning to launch a six-month pilot program to implement the body-worn cameras, according to an email from department spokesperson Nicole Nishida. She said the cameras will eventually be tested at Lancaster, Carson, Temple and Century sheriff stations and will be worn by patrol deputies. ß

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Signal Hill and Long Beach police departments considering ‘cop cams’