Sheriff’s Department Body Cameras

After an interminable delay, the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department has initiated outfitting its deputies with body cameras.
The move comes a full decade after two San Bernardino County law enforcement agencies – the Rialto Police Department and the Chino Police Department – made body cameras standard gear for their police officers. The San Bernardino and Fontana departments purchased and deployed them for their officers in 2016. In the years since, a number of other police departments in San Bernardino County as well as throughout Southern California have acquired the devices and put them into routine use. At present, every other sheriff’s department in Southern California is utilizing the cameras, which in addition to being capable of video recording can also pick up sound out to a distance of 33 to 40 feet.
The cameras, worn on the uniforms, belts or eyeglasses of the officers, are distinct from vehicle cameras, which have been in vogue with many police departments for some two decades. The sheriff’s department operates a number of helicopters, most of which have been able to capture video footage for more than three decades. In 2018, under then-Sheriff John McMahon, the department initiated a pilot program/experiment in which a limited number of deputies were outfitted with body cameras. The deputies and their superiors reported no outstanding problems with the program on their end, although there were what were termed “technological issues” that made the operation of the cameras unreliable in certain circumstances or areas of the 20,105 square-mile county. For reasons that remain unclear, McMahon did not take the bodyworn camera program beyond that pilot program.
Shortly after the current sheriff, Shannon Dicus, was appointed sheriff in the Summer of 2021, he committed to having his department iron out certain technical glitches that existed with the bodyworn camera systems that the county had invested in so that all of the department’s deputies would be videoing from their perspective their activity in the field and their encounters with the public in general and both criminal suspects and arrestees specifically in short order. Dicus said that the bodyworn camera system would be up and running no later than December 2021.
It is not clear what delayed the implementation of the program along the timeline Dicus specified.
At its February 28, 2023 meeting, the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors signed off on a $6,561,335 contract with Scottsdale, Arizona-based Axon Enterprises for the period of March 1, 2023 through February 29, 2028 to equip roughly two-thirds of the sheriff’s department’s 2,007 deputies with body cameras. The contract specified the county spending $1,312,267 yearly to phase the program in and maintain it over the five-year life of the deal, with the option to extend the contract for one additional two-year period or two additional one-year periods.
According to information available to the Sentinel at that time, the county is to pay Axon Enterprises $399 for each camera along with a $79 per month fee for unlimited data storage and retrieval from each device.
Ultimately the goal is for the cameras to be worn by all of the department’s deputies and detectives. In February, when the Sentinel researched the issue, it had not been determined whether the department’s sergeants and lieutenants would also routinely sport the devices. The concept, the Sentinel was informed, consisted of having all department personnel who interact with citizens in the field on a routine or daily basis to be required to wear the cameras. The department’s captains, while occasionally coming in contact with residents and commonplace citizens, are not in the field on a constant basis and spend far more of their time in indoor settings at department facilities. Sergeants and lieutenants divide their time, in most circumstances, between office work and field work, and generally do not involve themselves in activity in which controversy over citizen contact has played out, although there are exceptions.
In March, there was some confusion as to whether Axon was to provide all 2,007 of the department’s sworn personnel with the cameras or merely two-thirds of them, i.e., 1350 deputies, detectives, sergeants and lieutenants. Though the primary bottleneck in fully implementing the program was said to consist of Axon’s ability to manufacture the requisite number of devices for the county while meeting its production quotas for other clients, it was stated that substantial numbers of deputies working the streets would have them by August or September, and that after those working in the field had been completely outfitted by late October or early November, deputies working in the county’s detention facilities in Rancho Cucamonga, Glen Helen, San Bernardino and Adelanto would be equipped next, to be followed by the department’s detectives.
As it stands, the department at present is now in the course of providing the cameras to its deputies working out of the Hesperia station, as well as the deputies assigned to the department who work out of the sheriff’s department’s San Bernardino headquarters.
The sheriff’s department has patrol responsibility for the entirety of the county’s unincorporated areas as well as the 14 cities in the county that do not have their own municipal police departments and which contract with the sheriff’s department for police services. Those contract cities include Chino Hills, Rancho Cucamonga, Grand Terrace, Loma Linda, Highland, Big Bear, Hesperia, Apple Valley, Victorville, Adelanto, Yucaipa, Yucca Valley, Twentynine Palms and Needles.
It thus appears that it will be the sheriff’s deputies patrolling Hesperia and Oak Hills as well as Grand Terrace, Loma Linda and the county areas surrounding the county seat of San Bernardino – Muscoy, Reche Canyon and Mentone – who will first make use of the cameras.
One report had it that the hold up in the delivery of the devices had been driven by the dearth of cell towers and amplifiers that existed in the more remote portions of the 20,105-square mile county, such that video and audio data transmitted from them was not being received by the department’s communications division. The department does not want to be explicit about the technical fixes applied to cure this problem, since doing so could compromise the security of the system or otherwise leave it vulnerable to hackers. Indications were, however, that a means of superseding the shortcomings in the system has been formulated and is being applied.
Another issue for Dicus and the department’s command echelon is the balance between transparency and vulnerability toward exposure of some of the department’s less attractive attributes that must be struck.
For more than a half century, the department has burnished a well-deserved reputation for employing deputies who do not hesitate to utilize brutality and excessive force as a law enforcement tool. In recent decades, this issue has been complicated by a significant number of deputies who make use of anabolic steroids, testosterone supplements and testosterone precursors in their efforts to beef up. Such chemicals can trigger what is referred to as ’roid rage, i.e., angry and aggressive behavior. Law enforcement agencies in general, and the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department in particular, encourage their sworn officers to maintain in the field command presence, which can be effectuated by a threatening demeanor. Even though exhibiting ’roid rage can be useful to carrying out the department’s mission, the anger and brutality issues brought on by steroid and testosterone use can, and have, on occasion created legal issues for the department, particularly when sheriff’s deputies have channeled that anger into excessive force incidents.
A strategy the department and its command structure has used in attempting to harness the aggressiveness of its chemically-enhanced deputies is to assign them to its Operation H.O.P.E. (Homeless Outreach and Proactive Enforcement) and Operation Shelter Me programs, which are aimed at the county’s unhoused population to convince them to leave the county or at least those portions of the county patrolled by the sheriff’s department, such that the dispossessed steer clear of the cities which contract with the sheriff’s department for law enforcement services. It is generally thought that the political leadership in Chino Hills, Rancho Cucamonga, Grand Terrace, Loma Linda, Highland, Big Bear, Hesperia, Apple Valley, Victorville, Adelanto, Yucaipa, Yucca Valley, Twentynine Palms and Needles will approve of the department ridding them of the unsightly blight of the persistently destitute in their jurisdictions and that homeless individuals will not have the wherewithal to take any sort of legal action when the deputies unleash their pent up fury on them by roughing them up or beating them. In this way, arming all of the department’s deputies with bodyworn video cameras could prove a double-edged sword that might redound to the detriment of the department’s reputation in a wider context.
While it is unlikely that San Bernardino County District Attorney Jason Anderson, who is Dicus’s political associate and considers himself his friend, would utilize his authority to prosecute a law enforcement officer who was using his discretion and whatever tools are in his arsenal to redress vagrancy issues, a video of a deputy administering summary punishment on a denizen of the streets that falls into the hands of the media might prove problematic for the department. By limiting the department’s bodyworn camera program to a pilot program, Dicus has avoided, as did McMahon before him, any such contretemps so far.
Mark Gutglueck

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