A few years after Fullerton police beat and killed a homeless man named Kelly Thomas, city officials in 2014 mandated body-worn cameras for police officers — a tool seen as useful to accountability, reform, and stemming police misconduct as well as unnecessary brutality. 

The device became more common among the county’s major law enforcement agencies as the years went on. 

Huntington Beach later adopted the policy in 2016. So did Santa Ana the year after. 

Yet, throughout that same time, one of Orange County’s largest police forces never joined them.

But now the Orange County Sheriff’s Dept. finally aims to follow suit, with a formal, body-worn camera policy set to be implemented department-wide as early as July of this year, said Sheriff Sgt. Ryan Anderson in a written response to Voice of OC questions Friday.

The policy appears to be coming way sooner than expected, after the department’s top cop, elected Sheriff Don Barnes, told county Supervisors last year that he predicted the policy would take effect in January 2022. 

Anderson, a department spokesperson, said he wasn’t sure what sped things up. 

The department previously conducted a pilot body camera program from October 2018 through March 2019. 

“Shortly after the pilot program, an interim policy was created. Formal policy is still under development and review,” Anderson said.

The department’s top cop, elected Sheriff Don Barnes, explained his department’s “slow approach” to the county’s elected Board of Supervisors last year, saying the policy takes time to study and is “challenging to implement” through its personnel, data storage, and legal demands.

And the department already has some video oversight systems in place, Barnes said, pointing to the department’s use of dashboard cameras over the last three decades.

Yet some say body-worn cameras are long overdue for an agency that fills in as a police department for the county’s dozens of cities and unincorporated areas that don’t have one — especially after a deputy shot and killed Kurt Reinhold, a homeless Black man, during a jaywalking stop in San Clemente last year. 

Reinhold’s family — currently searching for answers while use of force investigations are underway — won’t have any body camera footage of the incident to go off of, beyond footage from an out-of-view dash-cam, a nearby motel’s low-resolution surveillance tape, and a bystander’s cell phone which pans away from the incident periodically.

Meanwhile, there are questions about whether body-worn cameras sufficiently curb police misconduct on their own — without the adoption of new policies and reforms to support them — or whether they merely record people’s last breaths for the internet’s viewing when the footage is recirculated online.

Jennifer Rojas of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in a Thursday interview said she has a number of questions about how Barnes’ department will use the new policy: 

“Will the deputy be able to see the body-worn camera footage before they issue a statement during a use-of-force investigation? Will there be clear assurance to the public that body-worn camera footage won’t be used for surveillance? When will they release the body-worn camera footage?” Rojas said. 

She added: “The policy matters a lot. Transparency is of the greatest importance, and we’ve seen it’s really just another way for officers to target Black and Brown community members and exonerate the officers involved in critical incidents.”

Such videos, when they are released, also “put the death of Black and Brown people on display, when the original purpose of body cameras is to bring transparency,” Rojas said.

Asked about some of these concerns, Anderson wrote in response: “The use of body-worn cameras will enhance transparency for the Orange County community and the Orange County Sheriff’s Department.” 

“This new tool will add valuable context for routine as well as critical incidents,” Anderson said. 

He also said deputies will have the ability to review body camera footage after a recorded contact, adding “the Orange County Sheriff’s Department will comply with current law and release body-worn camera footage as required by SB 1421, AB 748 and the California Public Records Act.”

The annual program is expected to cost nearly $3 million the first year and $2.1 million annually after. “A body-worn camera vendor has been identified and we are currently in the procurement process,” Anderson wrote. 

In September of last year, Orange County’s elected Board of Supervisors found themselves considering a new Sheriff budget just months after a wave of protests against police brutality and law enforcement spending overtook the county’s streets. 

It was at that Sept. 1 meeting where Barnes voiced his support for the body-worn camera policy, which supervisors later approved. 

Barnes said the new multi-million-dollar effort was coming at the right time: 

“We already had video components in our (deputies’) in-car systems, which is why I think we can take a little slower approach (to body cameras), but I think now is the time for all the right reasons for evidentiary value for oversight and transparency.”

Many cities throughout the county, such as Santa Ana, Anaheim, and Huntington Beach, already have body-worn camera policies for officers. 

Placentia is among them. There, Police Sgt. Chris Anderson told Voice of OC in March that a body-worn camera “shows the public what they (officers) are doing, it shows everything is being recorded.” 

Anderson said that despite “hiccups” from officers learning the “programming and knowing what to do in terms of inputting into the system,” the policy  is “working out very well.” 

The City of Garden Grove also expanded its existing use of body-worn cameras in January, committing to spend a total $2.6 million over the next five years for 134 body cams, an updated network, new software, and other features.

Yet there are others, like Newport Beach and La Palma, that have not adopted the policy. 

In Newport Beach, Police Sgt. Tracy McKenzie in March said the city denied the department’s request for body-worn cameras, though he said the city was the “first agency” in the county to have vehicle dash-camera video implemented and that it was “sufficient for us”. 

In La Palma, another city without body cameras, officials once talked about a test program but never implemented one. 

The City Council chose “at the time not to move forward,” but the department is “constantly trying to reassess,” said Police Capt. Ron Wilkerson, who said the department is “absolutely willing” to implement seeing body cameras as a “valuable tool.”

Barnes at the supervisors’ September meeting said his deputies fully support the shift: 

“Our deputy Sheriff’s have been looking forward to and asking for (it).”

Brandon Winchester contributed reporting.

Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member at Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at bpho@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @photherecord.

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