The San Luis Obispo Police Department is nearing the end of a year-long testing period for body cameras to be worn by its officers in the field.
Police Chief Deanna Cantrell and Captain Keith Storton joined KCBX News Director Randol White in-studio to explain how the testing is going and when we can expect all officers to be wearing the gear.
Note: The following transcript is from an interview that was edited for time purposes.
Randol White: Chief Cantrell, in the wake of recent deadly violence against police officers and then videos by members of the public that show events involving deadly force, do body cameras come into play more than ever now and are you hoping to move out of the testing phase sooner than later?
Chief Deanna Cantrell: I am, I think body cameras come into play more than ever and I can't wait for us to get body cameras on every officer that we have, but there is something that's being referred to as video bias. Think about in a football game, you may see 15 cameras and you think 'nope, that's not a touchdown, not a touchdown, not a touchdown' and then one camera shows the actual right angle and your realize, 'oh, it is a touchdown.' So the cameras are very good, but we do have to keep in mind that they're not perfect, but they are at least giving a vantage point from what an officer may be seeing or experiencing.
White: And, Captain Storton, you're in charge of this project, so is it something where the officers need to let the people know that they're wearing a body camera?
Captain Keith Storton: Not necessarily. They don't have to come out and say 'yes, I'm wearing a body camera at this time.' It is readily visible to where a citizen can see it.
White: Okay, and because of the size, I know there have been some problems, most recently in the case in Baton Rouge where officers fatally shot Alton Sterling. According to the Wall Street Journal, the police department says the cameras became dislodged and there's no video available, and this is not the first time that there have been these sort of technical difficulties. During this testing phase, is there anything the police department is working on to make sure that wouldn't happen here locally?
Storton: Sure, we've tried a different varieties of cameras, just to test the cameras themselves and also the attachments that are worn on the officers' bodies.
White: And there are different ways of storing the videos as well. As I understand it, you can do it in-house or you can put it in a cloud situation. Which of these versions is the City of San Luis Obispo looking at?
Storton: Right now we're doing in-house storage on our own servers. But, as the technology grows, there could be the potential to go to an off-site cloud storage.
White: And, how often are the cameras actually turned on?
Storton: Anytime an officer makes a contact with a citizen, they're required to activate their camera. And so, that's when we would capture those images and we have the ability to download that wirelessly.
White: And is this video anything that would be accessible through a Freedom of Information Act request by media outlets or the public?
Storton: At this time, most of the data that we would collect would be under the protection of the Collection of Evidence, which would not be necessarily distributed publicly, but certainly the Chief has discretion on certain circumstances that could be released.
White: During this testing phase, what percentage of the officers are wearing the cams?
Storton: Right now we have ten cameras deployed (note: there are 60 sworn officers).
White: I can't imagine that this is an inexpensive venture.
Cantrell: No, it is very expensive, but I do think, from liability wise, I do think we will see that it will save us in the long run from liability and from accusations that may not be true. It is expensive, but I do think it's well worth it.
White: What's the best case scenario for getting these implemented fully within the department?
Storton: We're completing the pilot program by the end of August, and as long as things go well, we could be looking in fall time.