VPD adds body-worn cameras to uniform

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Visaila Police Department gets $306,000 grant to cover half the cost of outfitting 119 officers with body-worn cameras

By Reggie Ellis @Reggie_SGN

VISALIA – Tulare County’s largest police department is adept at capturing criminals, and by this time next year, they may be capturing those arrests on video as well.

The City was informed on Sept. 29 that it has been awarded a $153,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Body-Worn Camera Policy and Implementation Program.

The federal funds will pay half of the estimated $306,000 cost of outfitting more than 100 Visalia Police officers with body-worn cameras (BWC).

The Visalia Police Department currently has 154 sworn positions. The first year of the BWC program will outfit 119 officers with cameras, including those assigned to the Patrol Unit, Traffic Unit, Youth Services Unit, Commercial Policing Unit, Special Enforcement Unit (SEU), Homeless Outreach Proactive Enforcement (HOPE) Team, and Agents.

The city’s matching funds will be paid for out of the Measure N, the half-cent sales tax approved by voters in November 2016 for public safety, roads and facility maintenance and youth activities. City staff is projecting Measure N revenues to exceed the spending plan by the end of the year.

The total cost of the BWC program to the City, including equipment, staff and storage is approximately $766,000 over the next five years. The council authorized staff to draft an amendment to the Measure N spending plan that will be presented to the tax measure’s oversight committee which will then make a recommendation to the City Council before any Measure N money is committed to the program.

The Visalia Police Department will also add a position to administer the body-worn camera program, in part, to handle citizen requests under the California Public Records Act (PRA), and also from the Tulare County District Attorney’s Office for prosecutorial purposes. The department expects “a substantial increase” in requests due to the video captured by the officers’ cameras similar to an increase in requests from its in-car camera videos. In-car video requests increased from 122 in 2014 to more than 2,230 between through September of this year.

The salary and benefits for this position will range from $67,000 to $79,300 annually, the equivalent to Police Identification Technician. The position will be funded as one of two police staff positions already approved as part of Measure N’s 10-year spending plan.

The total cost of the BWC program will be $766,385 over the next five years.

While the department seems to have the funding it will need to purchase the camera equipment. Sgt. Damon Maurice, spokesperson for the department, said VPD is still researching vendors who can provide the most efficient BWC package. A separate agenda item will be presented to City Council at a future meeting to award a contract for equipment and services. Staff is looking to implement the contract in early 2018.

Sgt. Maurice said the department tested out the idea of using body cameras two years ago. The project placed body-worn cameras on 10 officers for a few weeks. Maurice said the limited demo of the equipment shed light on issues relating to video storage space, privacy issues and procedural issues associated with a BWC program and the city decided it was not ready to begin a program.

He said the department has also not drafted a definitive policy on how long it will keep the video footage, where the video will be saved, who will have access to it and who can request access to it and which, if any of those would be in violation of privacy issues.

“There are still a lot of questions to be answered,” Maurice said. “And some of these issues will be addressed by legislation that will require policies be written in a specific way.”

VPD will be the fifth law enforcement agency to adopt a BWC program. Locally, the Tulare County Sheriff’s Office, Porterville Police Department, Exeter Police Department, and Farmersville Police Department have implemented a body-worn camera program. The Visalia Police Department has been in contact with other agencies as part of its research of body worn camera programs and will continue to do so throughout the process in order to share information and identify and employ effective implementation strategies and appropriate equipment.

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