KSBY INVESTIGATES: Police body cameras - KSBY.com | San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara Area News

KSBY INVESTIGATES: Police body cameras

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Tasers, batons and guns are ever-present items we see on police officers, but now some local officers have a high tech new weapon to fight crime: body cameras.

The miniature video cameras are clipped to the chest, rest above the eyes or perch on the shoulder. Costing about $700-800 each, body cameras are wireless and weigh only a few ounces, and can capture images and audio in front of an officer.

"They're really neat. They're simple to use," said Commander Mark Miller of the Pismo Beach Police Department.

"I think we were one of the first agencies to use body cameras. We're always looking for technology that's going to improve or help our job," said Commander John Peters of the Grover Beach Police Department, which began deploying body cameras two years ago.

However, there are controversial debates happening across the country about how and when police should use them. Some department heads like Arroyo Grande Police Chief Steve Annibali even wonder whether just because we can use them, should we?

Officers say they body cameras are another tool help investigations and to strengthen cases, especially in domestic abuse cases. They say they use the cameras to do on-scene interviews, and they can review the footage afterwards for training purposes.

Pismo Beach Police deployed their body cams in February, so they say it's still too early to tell whether they'll help make or break a case. However, they help keep both police officers and the public on their best behavior.

"It protects the officer as far as false accusations. In case someone comes back with a complaint, we can review the video," Commander Miller said. "If people know they're being videotaped, they're going to act a certain way."

According to a year-long study of the cameras at the Rialto Police Department in San Bernardino County, the use of force by officers was cut by almost 60 percent and complaints by citizens went down almost 90 percent, from 24 in 2011 to 3 in 2012.

Last year, Santa Maria Police Department had 75 complaints against their officers, according to its chief. He says the body cameras could help save taxpayer dollars being spent to investigate the claims.

"It's certainly in the future for Santa Maria. We want our police officers to have all the tools available. At the same time we have be sensitive to the rights of the American citizen," Chief Ralph Martin said. "I have a lot of questions relative to seeing officers wearing it and takes video inside your home. Is that a violation of the 4th amendment?"

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is usually against such recording tactics, but said in a statement, "Police on-body cameras are different because of their potential to serve as a check against the abuse of power by police officers."

The ACLU is working with police departments to implement procedures on when officers should be required to turn the devices on, how long video should be stored, whether officers have to notify people that they are filming, and so on.

The San Luis Obispo County District Attorney's Office says it has not had complaints in court regarding privacy issues when it comes to dash and Taser cameras. Prosecutors say in fact there are increasingly more cases where video has helped, but they do fear jurors will soon expect seeing video in court.

"There's always going to be the question of, why wasn't it working? Did you turn it off? Did you intentionally turn it off? I think jurors will look at that and say, if a video was available, why was it off?" Chief Martin said.

Police departments are also waiting for newer models to come out. Grover Beach Police say sometimes the body cameras break or freeze, and the video at night is only visible if an officer uses a flashlight.

California seems to be leading the launch of body camera technology. Los Angeles Police began field testing at this year. San Diego Police want 300 officers outfitted by July. San Francisco police are looking into them after public outcry from an officer-involved shooting in March.

On the Central Coast, Isla Vista foot patrol officers will soon have microphone cameras, according to the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Office. Santa Barbara Police don't have department-issued body cameras; however, they say some officers use personal cameras to record incidents.

San Luis Obispo Police say they have already tested them, and Arroyo Grande, Santa Maria, Guadalupe and the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Office are looking into them, but are waiting for more usage guidelines to come out.

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