After hours of public discussion before City Council members last year, technicians were working Monday morning to install video cameras in the Santa Barbara City Police Department’s fleet of patrol cars, a move that backers say will protect the department from liability in the future.
A unanimous decision of support for the $220,000 purchase came from the City Council last December, after a stern recommendation for the cameras came from the Santa Barbara County Grand Jury.
That report from the grand jury came just two weeks before the department was embroiled in an incident with one of its DUI officers. Officer Aaron Tudor’s car was outfitted with a test camera on Oct. 21, 2011, when he pulled over driver Tony Denunzio on suspicion of drunken driving.
Some witnesses say excessive force was used by Tudor, but Police Chief Cam Sanchez released the video from the incident and maintained that no rules were broken.
Denunzio’s case is set to go to trial later this month in a Santa Maria courtroom.
“I think [the cameras] are widely viewed as something that will shield us from liability,” said Sgt. Riley Harwood, who was on site Monday as workers installed the new equipment in the vehicles.
An HD camera will be placed on the front windshields of 28 patrol cars, just next to the rear-view mirror. A smaller infrared camera also will be installed into the back portion of the car to monitor suspects being taken into custody.
Harwood said the department had used video monitoring in the past, when footage was recorded onto VHS tapes, but the program was discontinued in the early 2000s because of cost.
All of the new footage doesn’t mean the public will be able to request to view an incident. Harwood said patrol car video does not qualify under public record law, but that the department will turn over the footage as part of the discovery process during legal proceedings.
David Straede, network administrator for the department, said it tried out four types of cameras, but in the end went with the company Watchguard Video for the HD cameras.
The cameras will record video at all times, so that police personnel can go back and review the footage within 24 hours.
Even if something doesn’t seem important at the time, having that footage could prove invaluable later.
Straede cited the case of a Texas district attorney who was shot on his way to work last week, noting that police car cameras had been used to garner leads on the killers.
Larger events will trigger video with audio, and those recordings begin when an officer triggers a mic on his or her belt, if the patrol car is in a collision, if the rifle in the patrol car trunk is unlocked, or if the flashing lights on the roof of the car are activated.
Once the officers pull into the station parking lot, the patrol computers begin automatically sending the footage wirelessly to an internal database that stores the video.
“The officers don’t really have to do anything,” other than categorize the footage, Straede said.
The cars are also being updated with faster computers.
“We essentially turn this into a mobile office for them,” he said, adding that officers can check emails, access records and the like while out on patrol.