At a recent meeting of the county’s Citizens’ Law Enforcement Review Board, board members spent nearly a half-hour grilling a representative from the Sheriff’s Department about body-worn camera policy.
Lourdes Silva, a longtime review board member, led off the discussion: “Why is there no accountability with officers turning their body cameras on?” she asked, before vowing to spend her remaining seven months on the board pushing for a policy revision.
“I’ve seen this over and over and over again where the body-worn cameras are not turned on,” she said. “It’s a concern not only for me, but a lot of the board members expressed the same concerns.”
At issue is the policy’s silence about what happens if a sheriff’s deputy doesn’t activate his or her camera during an encounter that meets the criteria for recording. The San Diego Police Department’s policy, for comparison, requires officers to document all recordings and supervisors to “ensure officers properly document and record events.”
The Los Angeles Police Department’s policy, which has been held up as a model, is more straightforward: “If an officer is unable or fails to activate the [body-worn camera] prior to initiating an enforcement or investigative contact, fails to record the entire contact, or interrupts the recording for any reason, the officer shall set forth the reasons why a recording was not made, was delayed, was interrupted, or was terminated.”
No such language is in the San Diego Sheriff’s Department’s policy, nor does the department have a way to track whether a deputy activated his camera. Sgt. Aaron Meleen, the review board’s liaison, said department supervisors do “spot checks” to see if deputies are following body-worn camera guidelines and the department conducts an annual audit that involves pulling a certain number of incidents for review.
Silva told Meleen that approach was inadequate.
“I’m just hoping that you guys are looking at the San Diego Police Department and other agencies, because we really need to do something about this,” she said. “The policy needs to change, especially when it comes to information that we can’t get because the body-worn camera wasn’t turned on.”
Over the last several months, deadly encounters between police and civilians have underscored the importance of body-worn cameras when it comes to law enforcement transparency and accountability. In California, SB 1421, which took effect last year, requires agencies to turn over records, including video, in incidents involving the discharge of a firearm, or use of force that results in death or great bodily injury. A similar bill, AB 748, requires law enforcement agencies to release video or audio recordings of police shootings within 45 days unless disclosure “would substantially interfere with an active investigation.”
The county’s law enforcement review board investigates deaths in custody in addition to misconduct allegations lodged by the public against sheriff’s deputies and probation officers. The board consists of volunteers appointed by the county’s Board of Supervisors and a staff of professional investigators who present their findings to board members for approval. The board handles roughly 150 investigations each year.
VOSD reviewed three years’ worth of review board reports and found only one mention of a deputy not turning on his camera in violation of policy. For that case, the board issued a misconduct finding.
“Deputy 1 was trained and authorized to use Body Worn Camera, (BWC) however, a recording did not take place until a supervisor came on scene,” the finding says. “Clarification could not be sought as Deputy 1 declined to participate in an interview” with review board investigators.
“According to the Patrol Manual policy for BWC, the goal of the BWC system is to provide an additional layer of documentation for events, actions, conditions, and statements,” the finding continues. “What started off as a simple exchange between Deputy 1 and the complainant escalated into a detention. … Statements with respect to this allegation were in conflict and the lack of BWC problematic as it would have been definitive proof.”
Reports also show several cases in which body-camera footage cleared a deputy in a misconduct allegation.
Meleen, the Sheriff’s Department liaison, expressed surprise at board member comments about deputies not turning on cameras.
“In the last year, I’m aware of just a handful times where we sent over stuff where the body-worn camera wasn’t utilized,” he told the board. “Maybe I’m missing something here, but it sounds like there’s a lot of cases. Unless someone’s not telling us something, it doesn’t seem to be a huge systemic issue.”
Silva told VOSD that even though board findings don’t suggest a widespread problem, she stands by the concerns she raised at the meeting.
“I have reviewed investigations where sheriff’s deputy officers do not turn on their [body-worn cameras] prior to an incident and we aren’t provided reasons as to why.”
Board member Dave Alberga, who echoed Silva’s concerns at the meeting, telling Meleen, “It seems to come up more than you think,” also said he stands by his comments.
Sue Quinn, who worked for the review board from 1992 through 1997 and went on to serve as president of the National Association of Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement, told VOSD that she’d like to see the board track instances when deputies don’t activate their cameras and include that information in the annual report the board’s required to produce. She said the Sheriff’s Department should also be tracking body-camera usage and providing that data to the public.
Quinn said she was impressed by the board’s engagement on the issue and hopes it signifies the beginning of more robust oversight. The board has historically been short-staffed and underfunded and was forced to dismiss 22 death cases in 2017 without review. In June, County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher proposed boosting the board’s budget to pay for additional staff and expand the board’s investigative authority. This month’s meeting also marked the return of Paul Parker as the board’s executive officer. Parker, a former police officer and medical examiner, steered CLERB through a tumultuous period following the resignation of a former executive officer. In September 2018, Parker left CLERB to take a job as deputy director for the Los Angeles County Department of Medical Examiner-Coroner, but opted to return to San Diego when his old job opened up earlier this year.
Parker assured board members that he would immediately get to work creating a body-worn camera tracking system.