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Orange County deputy sheriffs will start to wear body-worn cameras in the coming weeks, years after other large police agencies — while the ACLU expressed concerns about how the cameras will be used.

The move comes four years after the similarly-sized San Diego County sheriff rolled out body-worn cameras to their patrol staff, as did Santa Ana police.

OC sheriff officials say they plan to start deploying the cameras next month to deputies and special officers who interact with the public, with full rollout taking place by about next summer.

“The deputies who work for me have been asking for this program to be implemented. And finally, after several years of consideration, we’ll be implementing that program.”

OC Sheriff Don Barnes said in a Facebook video briefing

Officials also said they plan to have cameras rolling at nearly all times in public.

“The goal is to have those cameras running any time any of our staff – any of our deputies, our [sheriff’s special officers], our investigators – have any type of public contact or public interaction,” said Undersheriff Jeff Hallock, the department’s second-in-command, in a Monday interview with Voice of OC.

“Our goal is to equip everybody who is public-facing, or in an assignment that requires public-facing interaction, to be wearing a body-worn camera.”

Hallock, who is overseeing the body-worn camera program, said he expects to put cameras on deputies in early-to-mid-August, with a goal that by the second quarter of 2022 “we should be pretty close to full implementation.”

He also said the cameras will essentially become part of the standard-issue equipment.

“There’s an expectation by not only the public, but our own deputies. Wearing a body worn camera, I’d say, is part of the standard equipment [for law enforcement officers],” Hallock said.

Yet some question whether body-worn cameras will actually increase accountability in police shootings, or instead be used mainly to disparage those who are the subject of wrongful police force.

“We have to question whether body-worn cameras actually can increase law enforcement accountability,” said Jennifer Rojas, an OC-based policing policy advocate with the ACLU of Southern California.

“It’s too often that body-worn footage is used to exonerate law enforcement officers and prosecute people who are victims of law enforcement abuse and violence,” pointing to what she called “highly-editorialized” releases of body camera footage by other police agencies.

Jennifer Rojas, an OC-based policing policy advocate with the ACLU of Southern California

The camera purchase – totaling nearly $13 million – includes 1,051 body-worn cameras, 335 vehicle cameras, as well as customer support, warranties and upgrades for five years.

It goes to county supervisors today for approval.

As for why the department is implementing years after its peers, Hallock cited the department’s large size, existing in-car video systems, and goal of being “very deliberate and very intentional” about implementing body-worn cameras.

The cameras will provide massive amounts of data – in the terabytes – every day that could be reviewed by prosecutors or subject to public records requests, Hallock said, adding department leaders wanted to make sure “we had the staffing and the infrastructure and the personnel in place before we started putting cameras on the deputies.”

Sheriff leaders say they expect the cameras will improve transparency and accountability, and help them better serve the public.

“We’re just really excited about the transparency it’s going to bring, and increasing the public confidence,” Hallock said.

Deputies’ union leaders say they support the cameras and look forward to their implementation.

“AOCDS has supported and continues to support the use of body-worn cameras,” said Juan Viramontes, president of the Association of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs (AOCDS).

“We will continue to work diligently with the Department throughout this complex process to implement a successful program.”

As for the body-worn camera policies, Rojas said the ACLU considers the cameras as supporting transparency and accountability only if they do the following:

  1. Require deputies under use of force or misconduct investigations to first give their statement before reviewing the footage.
  2. Mandate that “body worn cameras have to be turned on and they have to fully record every interaction that officers have with members of the public.”
  3. Require footage of critical incidents be made public, as required under AB-748. “And the footage has to be made fully available, not editorialized, so the public can see for themselves what happened,” she said.
  4. And finally, “an explicit prohibition on the body-worn cameras being used for surveillance purposes,” such as a prohibition on using facial recognition technology or gathering information based on constitutionally-protected speech.

Hallock said there will be clear privacy protections, and that facial recognition is not part of the body-worn camera program.

Regarding privacy concerns, he said, “every single person out there is carrying a camera, and it’s a cell phone.”

“So I think implementation of body worn cameras probably provide less flexibility than cell phones people have in their hands,” he added. “So I don’t think an additional 800 to 1,000 cameras in our county” on deputies to be used for specific reasons, is really going to have a negative impact.

The sheriff has a body cameras policy, which officials say will be updated before the cameras are deployed.

It currently requires deputies to activate body cameras anytime they’re on a call for service and to keep the cameras rolling until the incident ends.

They’re also required to activate the cameras any time they’re stopping a vehicle, arresting someone, performing a DUI field sobriety test, stopping a pedestrian, conducting searches, or engaging in “crowd management and control.”

The cameras also must be activated during interviews of witnesses and victims, with several exceptions where recording is not required:

  • If recording would interfere with an investigation or may be “inappropriate, because of the victim or witness’s physical condition, emotional state, age, or other sensitive circumstances such as nudity or a victim of sexual assault.
  • If recording would risk the safety of a confidential informant or investigation technique, citizen informant or undercover officer.
  • In patient-care areas of a medical facility, hospital, sexual assault treatment center, or other health facility where people are receiving treatment, “unless escorting an arrestee, or taking or anticipating an enforcement action related to a crime in progress, a criminal investigation, or an encounter with an uncooperative person in these areas.”
  • “Inside restrooms, dressing rooms, or locker rooms, unless responding to an emergency, crime in progress, or other circumstance which takes precedence over elevated privacy concerns.”
  • Or when a deputy “reasonably believes there is no legitimate law enforcement purpose.”

Supervisors, such as sergeants, also will be required to wear and activate body cameras, Hallock said.

He said the department will be updating its body camera policy before the cameras are rolled out, and that it will be available for the public to review upon request.

“Right now we’re in the final stages of that policy review,” Hallock said “Before we start putting cameras on deputies, we’ll publicly message the community and make sure they know we’re wearing cameras.”

OC Supervisor Lisa Bartlett, who represents south county communities that are mostly patrolled by the Sheriff’s Department, said she’s “very pleased” that deputies are being equipped with body cams.

“It is an important step forward to provide an accurate account of encounters with the public with video footage and audio as well,” Bartlett told Voice of OC this week.

Supervisor Katrina Foley echoed that support.

“I’m glad the OC Sheriff is joining other agencies to support body cameras. It’s good for the public and police,” Foley said.

The other three supervisors didn’t return requests for comment.

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

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