Visalia Police Department Starts Research on Body Cameras

The Visalia Police Department (VPD) made a presentation to the Visalia City Council on January 20 about its plan to outfit officers with body cameras.  The VPD will be starting the process with an internal research committee to look into the many complicated issues surrounding body cams. The research committee will investigate sources of funding for the cameras, and issues of privacy, public records, cost of storage, protocols and procedures.

Coincidently, the VPD’s presentation happened the same day that the City of Fresno equipped part of their police force with body cameras.  On that Tuesday, 50 Fresno police officers were fitted with the device, with another 50 officers to be fitted the following week. Fresno’s goal is the same as Visalia’s: to outfit all of its officers with their own camera. That will be 400 for Fresno, and 102 for the VPD.

According to the Fresno Bee, Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer said, “It really boils down to this – trust.” Though Dyer was referring to the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Tamir Rice in Cleveland, and the choking of Eric Garner in New York City, Fresno has had its share of officer-involved shootings or beatings, and as a result has lost some community trust. Fresno, in fact, is further along in the process than Visalia because an independent police auditor recommended that the Fresno Police Force wear the body cameras.

Visalia City Councilmember Warren Gubler said during the January 20 work session that the VPD already has the respect of the community, and its trust. It has been over a year since the last officer-involved shooting fatality in Visalia. Jason Salazar, VPD captain, said that body cameras were just as much an asset to the community as to police officers themselves. Salazar cited a study that said 60 percent of physical force went down for both the suspects and the police when they knew they were being filmed. There was also an 80 percent reduction in complaints to police department.

The VPD first implemented an in-car video system in the early 1990’s. The system is now installed in 80% of the cars and will have 100% implementation in two to three years. But there is a huge difference between recording video in a public space, such as outside a patrol car, and inside someone’s home. Salazar said that the question of privacy is actually the biggest issue facing the nations’ police departments when using body cams.

Questions arise when the people inside a home do not want to be filmed. There is also speculation on whether witnesses would want to speak knowing they were on camera. Further is the issue of what is considered a public record and what is not. Any video taken by police would be considered public record unless it will be used as evidence. If someone wanted to snoop on their neighbor’s domestic squabbles, or stakeout their neighbor’s home, they could theoretically request the video on the grounds that it is a public record.

Besides privacy issues, there are currently no budgeted funds for the cameras in the VPD. Mayor Steve Nelsen said to Salazar that, “If you need it then the council needs to find a way to pay for it.”

To fully equip the department would cost an estimated $74,000 to $82,000. It would then cost an additional $25,000 to $92,000 per year to maintain and store the huge amount of data generated every day. The cost variance depends on whether the VPD uses the cloud to store all the videos or an in-house service. Doing the storage in-house would be the cheaper option. How long the data needs to be legally stored is also a question for the research committee and will affect the cost of the program.

Because officer-involved shootings, perceived as epidemic, have reached the national stage, both Sacramento and Washington, D.C. have jumped into the fray. Legislation is pending in both cities that will dictate proper procedures and protocols surrounding the use of body cameras. Salazar predicted body cameras will become mandatory equipment for every police officer and that, along with the legislation, grants or matching funds will be offered to pay for the equipment.

Presently, the city council is satisfied with the VPD’s first step of appointing a research committee. Until key questions about how long to store the data, privacy issues, proper protocols and funding sources are answered, the city council is happy to move slowly. There is also the reality of quickly changing technology. The longer Visalia waits, the newer the technology the police department will be using. Right now the VPD is leaning towards the chest-mounted camera while Fresno is using the epaulette and Google-glasses format. Salazar mentioned that technology is moving faster than legislation; there are now cameras that can see through walls, which conflict with the laws concerning search warrants.

Councilmember Greg Collins emphasized that there is no need to rush into anything. There is no legislation mandating a program yet, so the VPD has time to develop good protocol in the camera’s use. Mayor Nelsen was heartened by the fact that the VPD had not rushed into implementing a program. He encouraged the department to learn from the experience of other departments and make slow and steady movement forward. He was encouraged by the VPD’s being proactive in its research into body cameras and not having a knee-jerk reaction to the national scene.

The Valley Voice reported in the January 1 issue that the Lemoore Police Department has been using body cameras for 10 years whereas the Tulare Police Department hasn’t yet started exploring the issue. The Farmersville and Exeter police departments are already in the testing stage.

According to Greg Gomez, Mayor of Farmersville, “We approved the program back in December. I think it’s a good thing, it protects both the citizens and the city should there ever be any issues that arise. We had assurances from the PD that the video captured will be protected to protect privacy.”

The VPD’s goal is to resolve these issues, identify finding sources, and implement a body camera program in 2015.

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