Illustration by Lizzy Choi.
Illustration by Lizzy Choi.

Body cameras are becoming the new normal for law enforcement in Santa Cruz.

The Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office began rolling out body-worn cameras in late December, and both the Santa Cruz Police Department (SCPD) and UC Santa Cruz Police Department (UCSC PD) are creating policies and deciding on manufacturers to implement body cams by the end of the year.

Body cams are one of the recommendations covered under the Obama administration’s 21st Century Policing initiative. A task force made up of members of law enforcement, civic leaders, community members, advocates and academics came up with the recommendations in 2015, with six main areas of focus. Those are: Building Trust and Legitimacy; Policy and Oversight; Technology and Social Media; Community Policing and Crime Reduction; Training and Education and Officer Safety and Wellness. Since then, police departments across the country have been adopting those standards, with body cameras among the recommendations.

“We’re committed to increasing transparency and accountability,” said Sergeant Chris Clark, public information officer for the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office. “The cameras, they’re a huge part of that.” The sheriff’s office is the first in the state to implement all the recommendations of the 21st Century Policing standards.

Like the police dashboard cameras that proceeded them, body cams have the ability to provide evidence that can help convict or exonerate a suspect.

They can also be crucial in proving police acted properly, as was the case in Fort Collins, Colorado, where police shot a knife-wielding man last summer after repeated warnings, or showing a police officer braking the law, such as in Vermillion, Ohio, where an officer was convicted of misdemeanor assault after jurors watched video from his body camera.

A body cam might have provided more definitive information in the events surrounding the Oct. 16 fatal shooting of a Sean Arlt, 32, who threatened Santa Cruz police officers with a rake. Many community members called for increased transparency in the wake of Arlt’s death.

Body cameras did document the shooting death of 15-year-old Luke Smith, north of Watsonville in November. Cameras captured video of police efforts to take Smith into custody by using weighted foam rounds, a Taser and a police dog before officers turned to lethal force. Some cameras were issued to Santa Cruz deputies in advance of the full rollout, which is expected to be completed by Jan. 25.

Cameras are to be activated by deputies under specific circumstances. Those, according to the sheriff’s department policy manual, include: incidents requiring use of force; arrests; while issuing citations or during detentions; when a suspect resists arrest; during a search; during a vehicle or foot pursuit and when emergency vehicles are called to a scene.

An estimated 150 deputies and supervisors involved in everything from patrol to court security will use the cameras when they’re on duty to protect both the public and police.

“It’s [the use of body cameras] absolutely for all involved. It can help eliminate ‘he said, she said’ situations,” Clark said. “And we’ve had situations before when a deputy encountered someone who was being uncooperative — as soon as he realized he was being filmed, he became cooperative. Behavior tends to improve when people know they are being filmed.”

He said the sheriff’s office reached out to the community when developing its guidelines.

“It took us two years, between testing and choosing a vendor, and then developing a policy, what are we going to do when we have it,” Clark said. “It’s not just something that happened overnight.”

Community outreach included working with members of the Santa Cruz chapters of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), along with reviews from both the district attorney’s office and the public defender’s office. The deputy sheriff’s union also weighed in.

The estimated cost for the equipment and data storage is about $200,000, Clark said.

Meanwhile, the SCPD is reviewing costs and determining policy regarding its implementation of body-worn cameras.

“Command staff has set up site visits at Bay Area law agencies that are using different types of body cameras. The purpose of these visits is to ask questions about the equipment, policy, procedure and data storage,” said SCPD spokesperson Joyce Blaschke in an email.

The city postponed the purchase of body cams because of financial considerations, noting data storage alone can cost $100,000 a year.

“How to preserve privacy is a consideration, in addition to choosing the right equipment, developing policies around data retention and storage,” Blaschke said. “All stages will need to be considered as body cameras are instituted.”

Data is a key consideration in bringing body cameras into use on the campus, largely because it is labor intensive, said UCSC PD Chief Nader Oweis.

“Every piece of video has to be reviewed — is it evidence, is it not evidence? It has to be logged,” Oweis said. The move to both body cameras and dashboard cams is part of an initiative from UC President Janet Napolitano’s office.

Oweis said his office is working on all of six focuses included in the 21st Century Policing initiative.

While generally supportive of the use of body cameras, Steve Pleich, vice chair of the Santa Cruz ACLU, said his group had some concerns about privacy and who can see what’s caught on videos.

“The officers may get to see them, the public does not,” Pleich said of the county’s policy. “Transparency is important when body cam tapes are produced.”

Pleich also questioned whether people could be guaranteed what he described as a “reasonable expectation of privacy” when deputies are called to specific incidents, such as domestic disputes.

He said his group followed the process as the sheriff’s office developed policies, and did the same in Capitola where body cameras have been in use since 2015.

The statewide ACLU organization took a much tougher stance regarding Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s guidelines.

“The Santa Cruz policy undermines the potential of body cameras as a tool for accountability,” said Catherine Wagner, staff attorney at the ACLU of Southern California, in an email. “The policy categorically keeps all body camera video from the public and allows officers under investigation to see footage of incidents before making a statement. This gives law enforcement an unfair advantage witnesses and victims don’t receive.”

While body cameras won’t solve issues like racial profiling and use of force, Wagner said they can be “an important first step.”