Santa Ana Police to Start Wearing Body Cameras This Summer

Photo courtesy Axon Enterprise, Inc.

A promotional image of the Axon Body 2 camera, which is expected to be deployed to Santa Ana police officers this summer.

Santa Ana police will begin wearing body cameras this summer, but officials still are drafting rules for when the cameras must be turned on, what the repercussions are for not using the cameras and whether any videos will be made public.

“Starting this summer, our officers will be able to wear these body cameras,” Councilman Jose Solorio said Tuesday, just before the City Council voted to approve the $1.5 million purchase of the cameras, as well as electric Taser guns, from Taser International.

All patrol officers, investigators, and traffic enforcement officers should be wearing the cameras by the end of August, Acting Police Chief Jim Schnabl said after the meeting.

In a follow-up email, he forwarded information saying “full implementation” of the camera program is expected in the third quarter of the year, which runs from July 1 to Sept. 30.

City officials haven’t released rules for when officers are required to hit record, what the repercussions are if an officer doesn’t record a force incident, and whether any footage will be made public.

“The [body cameras] policy is currently in draft form; upon final approval the policy will be available for release,” said a statement forwarded by Schnabl in response to Voice of OC’s questions.

The 6-0 vote to purchase body cameras, with Mayor Miguel Pulido absent after leaving the meeting early, came as the City Council also is considering increased oversight of the police department, including possibly creating a civilian review panel to examine police use-of-force incidents.

The body camera program won initial City Council approval in October 2015, nearly two years before the cameras are scheduled to be deployed.

Former Police Chief Carlos Rojas has said the department conducted an extensive outreach effort to get input from officers, community members, and prosecutors as they developed the camera policy.

The purchase includes 200 Axon Body 2 cameras, five years of data storage, and 400 electric Taser guns.

“I really do see [body cameras] as a mechanism to not only…build trust in the community, and fulfill something that they’ve been looking for, but also to keep our officers safe,” said Councilman Vicente Sarmiento. “It really has so many multi-layered benefits.”

Body-worn cameras have been supported by a variety of police groups and civil rights activists as a way to both protect officers from bogus complaints, and hold officers accountable when they use force. The sticking points often come down to when officers are required to turn on the cameras, what happens when they don’t, how privacy is protected, and whether footage becomes public.

There have been cases in which body cameras did not capture police shootings because they were not activated. Last July, a Chicago officer’s body camera failed to capture his fatal shooting of an unarmed man in the back because the camera wasn’t turned on.

Another officer’s camera reportedly captured the start of the chase, but the footage ended before the fatal shot.

Also unclear is whether Santa Ana officers will be able to review body camera footage before writing their incident reports. Many cities allow officers to review the video beforehand. Others, like Oakland and Atlanta, have adopted a two-step process after force incidents, where officers file a preliminary report before watching the footage and can later add to the report after seeing the video.

In Santa Ana, the cameras only will save video when officers press the record button.

The camera will also capture the 30 seconds before the button is pressed, without sound. Schnabl said he’s seen video in which an officer forgot to press record until after shooting, but because of this feature the camera was able to capture the moments leading up to the shooting.

Councilman Juan Villegas, who works as a sheriff’s special officer, called body cameras “the future” of policing. He described them as “a great tool” that helps protect officers and assists them when writing reports.

The city is paying about $4,000 for each camera, including training, storage, and support services.  The Taser guns are valued at about $1,700 each.

Before the council voted for the purchase, police accountability activist Albert Castillo said he was happy body cameras were coming, but wondered how much public access there will be to the footage and what will happen to officers who turn off their cameras when incidents happen.

Councilman David Benavides said Castillo, who is with the group Chicanos Unidos, raised “valid questions,” and Solorio said it was worthy of further discussion.

At the meeting, council members also briefly discussed stronger oversight of the police department, and signaled an interest in possibly establishing one of the state’s most powerful civilian oversight bodies.

There appears to be a block of four or five council members in support of increased civilian oversight. Four of the seven council members is the minimum needed to authorize a new oversight approach and fund it in the annual budget, which must be approved before the July 1 start of a new fiscal year.

Others on the council argue there’s already enough oversight of officers’ actions, such as the District Attorney’s Office, and that civilian review could cause rushes to judgment against officers.

On Tuesday, two council members – Sarmiento and Michele Martinez  – said they were looking at Oakland, which has one of the most powerful civilian oversight bodies in the country, as a possible model for Santa Ana.

Oakland’s new civilian commission, which was approved by voters in November, will oversee investigators and an executive director who look into allegations of police misconduct. The commission will be able to issue subpoenas for documents and testimony, recommend discipline against officers, fire the police chief for cause, and create a list of police chief candidates the mayor must choose from.

The investigators are guaranteed access to a wide range of police files and records, other than personnel files. Personnel documents, which are highly protected under state law, will be accessible only to the commission’s executive director, who will be bound by confidentiality rules.

Martinez, who often is the deciding vote on police-related issues,  said she supported a letter sent to the council by the American Civil Liberties Union, Chicanos Unidos, and other groups requesting eight specific requirements for civilian oversight, including an independent board and a broad scope for investigations.

Martinez called the letter’s suggestions a “good approach” and directed city staff to talk to groups like the ACLU as one of the next steps.

The next discussion on new police oversight is scheduled for mid-June. At that time, Martinez said, she will “move forward with an action” for an oversight proposal, saying she’s grown tired of delays.

If only four council members support a new oversight proposal, they will likely have to approve its funding in June as part of the annual city budget, if the model is to to go into effect within the year. That’s because city rules require five council members’ support for mid-year budget changes.

Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at ngerda@voiceofoc.org.