A Santa Ana police officer discusses the pros and cons of body cameras with residents at a forum held at Latino Health Access. Credit: ADAM ELMAHREK, Voice of OC

Santa Ana police officials met with more than 50 residents Friday to discuss the pros and cons in outfitting officers with body cameras.

The forum, held at the downtown headquarters of Latino Health Access, comes as residents in the city’s Latino neighborhoods have been demanding greater accountability of police. It had a far better turnout than previous forums the department has held on the issue.

Body cameras are increasingly being seen as a way to make officers more accountable during a time when highly publicized instances of police brutality have triggered a nationwide debate about how low-income and minority neighborhoods should be policed.

In Friday’s presentation, Commander Jason Viramontes said topping the list of benefits is a greater sense of trust residents have in police officers when their interactions are being recorded, he said.

“People like having cameras on officers for the accountability and transparency,” Viramontes said.

Perhaps the best arguments for police body cameras comes from the city of Rialto, which began requiring officers to wear cameras in 2012. The result was a 60-percent drop the number of use of force incidents, and an 88-percent decrease in citizen complaints against officers that year.

Yet there are also downsides.

Some officers say police would be more prone to second-guessing themselves in dangerous situations when a split-second could mean the difference between an officer saving him or herself or the life of another.

At the April forum, Viramontes played an officer’s body camera video showing a suspect charging the officer with his hand in his pocket, repeatedly shouting, “shoot me!”

Instead of shooting, the officer backs up and falls. He said at a news conference later he didn’t shoot because he knew the man was unarmed, and some hailed the officer a hero for showing such restraint.

There are also vexing policy questions. Should officers be allowed to review body camera video before writing their police reports? Should officers have cameras on at all times, or only during interactions? Should officers turn off their cameras when approaching crime victims or someone who wants to report crime anonymously? How much of the video should be made public, and how quickly?

At least one attendee said police should invest more in training so officers are best equipped to make the right decisions in tense situations.

“It seems like you’re trying to have a camera replace responsibility,” said Guadalupe Cortes, a 20-year-old student at Santa Ana College.

“Nobody’s saying these things are going to solve all the problems — you’re right about that,” Viramontes replied.

After Viramontes’ presentation, forum attendees broke out into small groups, with officers participating in each discussion. There was a group of mainly youth, a Spanish-speaking group and an English-speaking group.

Among other things, the youth group suggested that only a crime victim be allowed to see body camera footage of a crime, and that officers should not have access to video before writing police reports. They also suggested that victims of crimes be given the option of not being recorded or having their faces blurred in video.

Viramontes said the department will likely choose to implement body cameras, and if everything goes according to plan, officers will be wearing them by next year.

Please contact Adam Elmahrek directly at aelmahrek@voiceofoc.org and follow him on Twitter: @adamelmahrek

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