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San Diego Police Chief William Lansdowne’s big reveal at last week’s City Council committee hearing on racial profiling was a request to outfit patrol officers with body cameras.

Video and audio tapes of police interactions with community members would go a long way toward building trust, he said.

But this isn’t the first time SDPD has talked about using body cameras. Four years ago, the department even tried them out.

The cameras were hooked over an officer’s ear with a recording control panel on the officer’s chest. The department used the same rationale to justify the cameras as it’s using now. The San Diego Union-Tribune reported at the time:

Nine officers who work out of the Mid-City Division, which includes City Heights and the College Area, will wear the RoboCop-like gear while on routine patrol over the next 60 days. They will record everything from traffic stops and domestic disturbances to more volatile situations that have the potential to end with force.

“It gives real-time information on exactly what occurred at the scene. Anything that helps put the case into perspective,” San Diego Assistant Police Chief Bob Kanaski said yesterday. “No more ‘he said, she said.’ Now it’s in color.”

The previous attempt with body cameras didn’t go anywhere because they were too expensive, said department spokesman Kevin Mayer.

“Since that time, numerous advances have been made in technology and cost,” Mayer said.

But they’re still costly. Lansdowne estimated at the hearing that a larger pilot program of 100 cameras would cost roughly $200,000 and full implementation on 900 patrol officers would cost $2 million. The cameras would be another expense on top of the department’s $50 million-plus five-year plan to boost officer recruitment and retention and upgrade its dispatch system and other equipment.

The department is already trying out another effort with cameras, said Jeff Jordon, a vice president with the city’s police union. He said there’s a small body camera program going on now with officers in the department’s Central Division, which covers downtown and uptown neighborhoods.

San Diego State University public affairs professor Joshua Chanin said the cameras could help improve police accountability, but the key will be how they’re implemented.

“In order to deter misbehavior there has to be some threat of being caught doing something unlawful,” Chanin wrote in an email. “I doubt seriously that mid-level managers (or whomever) will have the capacity to review the tapes regularly so as to either catch misbehavior in real time or provide enough of a threat to deter misconduct. On balance, some potential, but my guess is that it will end up being unrealistic/unfeasible.”

Update: Mayer provided more details on the program after this story originally published. Here’s Mayer’s full email response: “The San Diego Police Department is currently field testing 10 body cameras at Central Division which began on January 7, 2014.  We are also talking with other venders who offer similar technology.  The goal is to find the best product available that will meet current and future needs in addition to being cost effective and fiscally responsible.   During this process, we have been evaluating best practices of other agencies in addition to input from a variety of sources.  Feedback from the community is greatly appreciated.  It would be premature for me to comment on Professor Chanin’s statements as our policies and procedures continue to evolve and have not been finalized.”

Liam Dillon

Liam Dillon was formerly a senior reporter and assistant editor for Voice of San Diego. He led VOSD’s investigations and wrote about how regular people...

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