Measuring public’s privacy, government’s accountability in body-camera discussion


City Council holds 2nd public hearing on use of Measure N to fund body-worn cameras on Dec. 18

By Reggie Ellis @Reggie_SGN

VISALIA – Tax dollars and privacy are normally high on the list of things that motivate citizens to speak up at City Council meetings. Yet, when those two issues intersected last week there was no public comment.

The issue of body-worn cameras (BWC) recording every interaction between officers and the public has been an issue that has drawn praise from civil rights leaders hoping to curb officer-involved shootings and violence toward minorities and criticism from others saying it heralds in a new era of “big brother” overreach. In Visalia, the Police Department is not only proposing to outfit every officer with cameras it also wants to use local tax dollars to pay for it.

At its Dec. 4 meeting, the Visalia City Council held a public hearing about using $157,000 in Measure N funding to cover about half of the initial cost of purchasing cameras for more than 100 officers. The remaining $153,000 will be funded through the Department of Justice’s Body-Worn Camera Policy and Implementation Grant, which the City Council accepted on Nov. 6.

The item was the first of two public hearings required to approve any amendments to Measure N, the half-cent sales tax measure approved by Visalia voters last November. Under the sales tax increase’s accountability measures, the council must propose a change to Measure N spending plan, which must then be reviewed by the Measure N Oversight Board before coming back to the council for two public hearings. The Oversight Committee concurred with the City Council’s proposal to use revenue from the sales tax measure for the cameras on Nov. 13. A second public hearing will be held at the Council’s Dec. 18 meeting.

Police Chief Jason Salazar said the funds would not impact the initial Measure N Spending Plan because the funds for the cameras are coming from higher-than projected Measure N revenues. Any future funding from Measure N for the BWC program would have to be approved as part of future Measure N spending plans.

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 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.

VPD has yet to decide which company it will purchase equipment from and 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.

VPD tested out the idea of using body cameras two years ago. The project placed body-worn cameras on 10 officers for a few weeks. 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.

The department must also draft 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.

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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