Body Cams on San Diego Police Produce Encouraging Results

March 24th 2015

Since adding body cameras to officers' uniforms, police in San Diego report that both residents' complaints and officers' use of force have dropped significantly.

According to a police department report for the City Council's Public Safety and Livable Neighborhoods Committee last week, since the initial roll-out of 600 cameras, residents' complaints dropped 40.5 percent, "personal body" force by officers is down 46.5 percent, and pepper spray use has dropped by 30.5 percent. The numbers were based on initial statistics gathered for 2014 and January 2015, and officials said that they hope to increase the number of cameras in the field by 2016.

"Body-worn camera technology is a win-win for both the officer and the community," Deputy Chief David Ramirez said in the report.

The report came as the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) released recommendations from an audit of the department. While the DOJ audit includes the suggestion to use body cameras, the San Diego police already began testing cameras in January of last year, two months before city leaders requested the DOJ audit, according to the Los Angeles Times. The request came in light of some 17 cases of misconduct in five years, among other things.

According to the San Diego Police Department's report, the department has already undergone many changes reflecting the 40 recommendations contained within the DOJ audit conclusions. Key changes have addressed the hiring and oversight missteps that led to the federal investigation. According to the report, the San Diego Police Department is "progressive, sound and very effective," and its authors note that many of the department's failures can be traced to the city's broader financial woes.

"[A] failure of leadership at many levels" caused a "failure to hold people accountable," Ronald Davis, director of the DOJ's Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, told the L.A. Times.

San Diego Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman, who was one of the officials who requested the federal audit, said that she supports all the recommendations.

Has the department done enough?

Others caution that changes in the department do not reflect deeper issues suggested by statistics. American Civil Liberties Union attorney Kellen Russoniello told the Times that the report's "failure to address broader issues such as racial bias in policing is inexplicable" after recent events involving racially charged police shootings. He cited a study showing San Diego traffic stops and searches disproportionately include black and Latino drivers.

According to the complaints initially lodged by city officials with the DOJ, racial profiling allegations were not as prevalent as other concerns with the department.

So, are body cameras working?

Officials cite the San Diego Police Department's successes with body cameras to tout successful reform efforts, but critics point to cases like Eric Garner's, where a civilian is killed by police even with a camera present (although not a body camera). Garner died last year while being subjected to an illegal choke hold by an NYPD officer.

Regardless, resounding opinions among both the public and police departments have favored the continued use of body cameras, which according to Zimmerman, act to "balance a citizen's right to a fair trial, the preservation of evidence, the protection of privacy rights, and police officer accountability," she says in the report.

In more recent cases, body camera footage has provided unique perspectives into police officers' dubious use of deadly force. In January, footage showed an Oklahoma officer shooting and killing a fleeing suspect. This month, two cases -- one involving the shooting death of a homeless man by the LAPD and the other involving Dallas police shooting a bi-polar, schizophrenic man -- were captured on officers' body cameras.

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