Cameras mounted inside vehicles or worn by Sheriff’s deputies or police officers have become an essential part of local law enforcement. Though both the Hollister Police Department and the San Benito County Sheriff’s Department are looking at options to replace their current systems, these cameras, according to both agencies, have proven their value time and again.
“By and large, they have been an amazing tool,” said HPD Sergeant Bo Leland. “They are not a perfect solution, but I wouldn’t want to go on patrol without one.”
The current cameras, made by WatchGuard, were first used by the police department in 2013. San Benito County Sheriff Eric Taylor said his department switched to WatchGuard in 2015 after experimenting with different systems starting in the early 2000s.
“At first, WatchGuard provided in-car cameras only,” said Leland, “and we carried a portable audio device with us that linked to the camera. After a few years, they came out with a more robust car and body camera system, which we then implemented, and we have that same system to this day.”
The department uses dash cams in every enforcement vehicle, such as patrol cars and motorcycles. Leland said that unmarked cars do not have cameras because they are not typically used for traffic enforcement or emergency response, but all people who drive those vehicles wear body cameras.
Unmarked cars do have a camera installed that is triggered if the car is in a collision to establish liability. However, footage from that camera would not be otherwise useful in a criminal investigation.
When cars and officers return to the station, Leland said the footage from their cameras is automatically downloaded to servers. If the video is potentially related to a case, it is immediately transferred to a DVD to provide a backup copy, which is kept until the case is adjudicated.
Cameras are triggered to record in various ways, Leland said. “If a vehicle camera is activated, it will activate the officer’s body camera. If one officer is recording at a scene and another officer shows up, his body camera will receive a signal and will automatically start recording. The body cameras also activate if an officer turns on their emergency red and blue lights or goes over 85 miles an hour.”
While body cameras only begin recording as a result of certain actions, they actually record on a loop at all times and will preserve the 30 seconds of video that was recorded prior to the camera being triggered. Dash cams can retrieve up to 40 hours of footage from a patrol car.
In the case of a criminal incident, all footage that relates to the case is logged as evidence and, if there is a prosecution, is made available to the defendant during the trial’s discovery procedure. It can also be made available through public records requests, though some information can legally be redacted under certain circumstances, such as anything that might identify a sexual assault victim or compromise the safety of a victim of a crime. Assembly Bill 748, passed in 2018, also requires all footage from cameras that record shots being fired or use of force resulting in death or serious injury to be released within 45 days of an incident.
According to Taylor and Leland, the current WatchGuard system is now aging out, as the cameras periodically break down and require care under extended warranties. Beyond the equipment’s technical problems, both agree that the older data storage system is unable to deal with the massive amount of video being uploaded to on-site servers.
“Our first server had about 11 or 13 terabytes of data that they told us was gonna last for a long time,” Taylor said, “and it filled up within a couple of years. Our servers keep failing, so we have to order replacement parts for them. And it’s not redundant—if our building were to burn down, we’d lose everything.”
Being given the option to upgrade the WatchGuard system, which, according to Taylor, would have involved an expensive upgrade to a new platform, the Sheriff’s Department has signed a $2.5 million, 10-year contract with Axon, which will provide not only cameras but an entire suite of services, including an improved record and evidence management system and a cloud-based, redundant storage system for the videos. Taylor could not provide a date of when the new system is expected to be in operation because he said it depends on when the cameras are available as there is a backlog.
One feature that Taylor finds potentially groundbreaking is the ability of Axon to assimilate video recordings made by the public into its evidence database.
“Right now, if people have cellphone video, we don’t have a system that runs all the different formats,” he said. “Axon automatically integrates all different forms of photographs and video, and we could just give you a QR code. If you upload a video, it automatically goes into our case file.”
Axon can also detect possible unprofessional conduct by officers, such as a pattern of their cameras not recording incidents.
“Let’s say you have a deputy that responded to a hundred calls last month,” he said, “but he only had one body-worn camera activation. It’s gonna flag that deputy for an audit of their performance to make sure that they’re not purposely turning their camera off or their equipment is not functioning correctly.”
Leland said the police department is considering packages from three different vendors, including Axon, and will soon be deciding on which system to adopt before asking for a supplemental appropriation from the City Council, with implementation sometime within the next two years.
“I think transparency and accountability are the best possible things that we can provide to the public,” he said. “We are trying to be as accountable as we can by instituting a robust audio and video recording program, and that’s what we’re attempting to do with getting this new technology.”
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