Almost 1,800 of the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department’s 2,007 deputies have now been outfitted with body-worn cameras.
Within the next three months, all of the department’s deputies working in the field and the department’s multiple detention facilities will be wired up for real time sound and video. That electronic record of their action from their perspective will be permanently uploaded and recorded to a data bank accessible to the department.
The modernization comes after a series of delay, that were both unanticipated and imposed by the department’s command echelon. Just over a decade ago, two of San Bernardino County’s municipal 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 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.
There were indications that the department found shortcomings with each of the various models of cameras offered by a limited set of vendors of the devices as well as the software and communications systems they coordinate with.
In 2022, Dicus said that progress was being made by the department in working with a contractor to provide suitable cameras and supplementary equipment.
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.
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.
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.
In September, the first batch of roughly 220 body cameras were provided to those deputies working out of the Hesperia and central San Bernardino stations. Thus, deputies working the streets of Hesperia, 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 – were the first to employ the Axon Body 3 cameras, said to be the most advanced personal video product now available through Axon Enterprises.
Since that time, Axon has delivered to the department approximately 1,600 more cameras, which cost $399 each.
In addition to providing the cameras, Axon receives and warehouses an unlimited amount of data from each camera to be restored and retrieved for a fee of $79 perm month.