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Santa Barbara County Police Agencies Prepare to Use Body-Worn Cameras

Local law enforcement looks to pilot models while others are still searching after President Barack Obama's recommendation to implement the devices

Body-worn cameras have recently become a large part of a national discussion about law enforcement transparency, but many Santa Barbara County police agencies have been considering piloting the devices for some time.

To wear or not to wear the cameras, allowing a sense of accountability for officers as well as the public, has — not so surprisingly — mostly come down to finding the funds.

Before police-involved shootings in Ferguson, Mo., and the like shone a light on potential need, Santa Barbara police began investigating body-camera types.

Facing a consistent price tag of $600 to $1,000 each, Sgt. Riley Harwood said police would welcome an opportunity to find finding through a program championed by President Barack Obama earlier this month.

A proposed three-year, $263 million investment package puts body cameras and law enforcement training and reform at the center of the initiative, which would provide a 50 percent match to states or cities purchasing the devices. 

The initiative’s $75 million investment over three years aims to assist in buying 50,000 body cameras nationwide.

Included in that program would be the cost of processing and storing video — a huge IT expense, Harwood said.

Police wouldn’t be forced to make footage available to the public, as is the policy with dashboard cameras in SBPD patrol cars, but the video could be used in court cases, Harwood said.

Santa Barbara police were also holding off to find a model to mesh with its dash cameras, which were installed last year.

This Vidmic model being tested by sheriff's deputies connects with the department's radio system. (Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Department photo)

“The cost is more significant than simply paying for units for 143 officers,” Harwood said. “If all goes well, our hope would be to get it into this budget process. Ultimately, that’s a decision the City Council would have to make.”

Technical difficulties were also hampering body camera discussions for the Santa Maria Police Department, which is currently updating all its software to accommodate a switch from a Ford Crown Victoria patrol car to Explorers and the all-wheel drive Ford Taurus.

Lompoc Police were still exploring the idea this week, but a handful of UCSB Police officers were already piloting some.

UCSB Police Sgt. Rob Romero said most of the 36 officers were still waiting on an official policy, which he expected to soon be adopted for the entire University of California System.

“As of right now, some officers are carrying their own,” he said.

The Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department purchased 40 body cameras in October, assigned 20 of them to deputies and eight of them are actually piloting the devices, spokeswoman Kelly Hoover said. 

She said most were using VidMic units connected to patrol car radios, although a second, bigger body camera was being tested within the department should the decision be made to equip all deputies.

Sheriff's deputies are testing two possible body-worn camera models. This body cam model isn't in circulation yet. (Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Department photo)

According to policy, deputies using body cameras must activate them during interactions with the public while on duty, with some exceptions for sensitive investigations.

Each camera runs anywhere from $300 to $550, Hoover said.

“The deputies who were selected to use the body cameras are ones who typically do not use a patrol car for their shifts and benefit the most from having the equipment, such as Isla Vista Foot Patrol deputies, school resource deputies and community resource deputies,” she said. “The video is archived on a secure, local server similar to the in-car video systems. 

“At this point and time, the reason every deputy is not equipped with a body camera is both a budget issue and an administrative choice. Even though body cameras are being used by other law enforcement agencies, the technology is relatively new and emerging and we are looking at all the potential issues surrounding their usage.”

Noozhawk staff writer Gina Potthoff can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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