The Santa Ana Police Department brass, which is considering whether to require officers to wear body cameras, held a public forum Thursday at their headquarters to hear residents’ thoughts on the issue.
But they didn't hear much, because only about a half-dozen residents showed up.
The low turnout is in spite of the news being dominated by protest and civil unrest over incidents of police brutality in one city after another nationwide. The most recent being the riot in Baltimore this week over the death of Freddie Gray, a young African-American man whose spine was severed after an encounter with police.
Six officers involved in the incident were indicted Friday morning.
There has also been anger in Santa Ana over the police beating of undocumented immigrant Edgar Vargas, which was captured on video; and the recent shooting death of 28 year-old Ernesto Javier Canepa Diaz.
While city officials have yet decide whether to require body cameras on officers, the overall goal is to improve the public trust in the police department, said Commander Jason Viramontes at Thursday's forum.
“You want the community to trust you. That’s the bottom line,” Viramontes said.
The city of Rialto, which adopted body cameras for police in 2012, stands out as a remarkable test case. There was a nearly 60 percent drop in use-of-force incidents in the year after officers started wearing body cameras, according to Viramontes and media reports. The number of citizen complaints against officers fell by 88 percent.
Santa Ana wouldn’t be the first city in Orange County to adopt body cameras. Fullerton and Anaheim -- two cities that have faced tremendous public pressure over use-of-force incidents -- began requiring them earlier late last year.
In Santa Ana, officers formed a 20-member exploratory committee to study the use of body cameras. Viramontes, chairman of the committee, presented to the forum attendees a list of the benefits and challenges.
But with so few present – there were more officers and government officials in the room than residents – the presentation turned into a conversation among police and local activists and neighborhood leaders Dylan Thompson, Tish Leon, Ed Murashie and Albert Castillo.
Among the benefits Viramontes highlighted were training opportunities for police, fewer use-of-force incidents, complaints and lawsuits, resulting in less stress for officers.
Having video evidence protects both the residents from being abused, and it protects officers from false allegations, he said. He pointed to the incident in Baltimore, and said things would have turned out differently had there been body cameras.
“If there’s no video, it just leaves a lot up in the air,” Viramontes said.
The attendees agreed.
“Just simply having the notion that you’re being observed could bring out the best behavior of everyone involved,” Thompson said.
Yet officers also have concerns, and say the cameras create some vexing questions.
For example, they’re considering whether to allow officers to review body camera video of an incident before writing police reports. Viramontes said the general consensus nationwide is that they should.
However, the neighborhood activists disagreed, saying that it gives the police officer an unfair advantage in defending his or her side in an incident where the officer’s conduct is in question. Reviewing the video first also removes the officer’s account of their state of mind during the incident, a key part of the story, the activists said.
Some officers question whether being recorded will make officers gun shy. Viramontes played a video from an officer’s body camera showing a murder suspect charging at the officer with his hand in his pocket, repeatedly shouting, “shoot me!”
The officer has his gun drawn but refuses to shoot, and backs up so quickly that he trips and falls onto his back. He said later during a news conference that he didn’t shoot because he knew the man wasn’t armed.
Viramontes said the police will hold more community forums in the coming months. He indicated he hoped more residents would show up for future meetings and wondered aloud whether the low attendance Thurday was because NFL draft was on television.