The next time you see a Chula Vista police officer coming your way, smile — you could be on camera.
That’s because the Chula Vista Police Department has been testing the use of body cameras since 2010, with the intent of fully rolling out the body cams for its more than 100 officers in the future.
Currently six officers carry the small device for testing after CVPD entered into a five-year contract with TASER, the creator of the cameras.
The cops who have the cams include a DUI officer, a canine officer, a field agent, a specialty unit officer, an officer from its gang and enforcement unit as well as a traffic officer.
Though it’s been in the works for four years, Chula Vista Police Capt. Lon Turner isn’t ready to announce a release date when every officer on the police force will add a camera to their arsenal.
“In terms of a full deployment we don’t have a timeline,” Turner said.
He said budgetary constraints and technological issues are delaying the full launch of the devices.
“It sounds like a really great and neat idea and it is, but there are a whole lot of issues that need to be resolved, as we found out over time,” Turner said.
Some issues Turner said include storage capacity and the dissemination of footage from the police department to the District Attorney’s Office.
Lt. Vern Sallee, who is in charge of the research and study of the cameras, said footage captured by the body cameras can make it easier in the prosecution of alleged criminals.
“Everything that an officer records is potentially evidence,” he said.
He said it will also protect police officers from false citizen complaints.
Salle said the miniature devices would be used in instances that require police enforcement action such as interviewing witnesses at crime scenes and in giving tickets.
He said a recording wouldn’t be needed in cases where a citizen would ask an officer for directions or in basic conversation.
Criminal defense attorney Mary Frances Prevost said the cameras would provide accountability on both sides of the law.
“This will make sure that fewer people will make false complaints (against officers), and cops will unfortunately have a monitor so that even the bad cops will have to behave themselves,” she said.
She said complaints against police officers go down about 80 percent when are cameras are present.
She also said it would put police officers under surveillance.
“Cops who otherwise might engage in misconduct will be more careful just because they know that there is an eye watching them,” she said.
Prevost sued the city of Chula Vista in two separate police brutality cases. She reached a $125,000 settlement recently for one of her clients, Dr. Eric Harris, who claimed a Chula Vista Police officer beat him following a concert in 2008.
Prior to that she settled with the city for $400,000 on behalf of a former Otay Ranch High School student who also said police beat him in 2008.
Recently, the use of a camera has benefited Prevost’s client in a case.
She said it was obtained in discovery from the district attorney where they claimed that her client tried to rip the badge off of a cop and assaulted the police officer.
She said four months after she took on the case she was sent the video, which she said proved otherwise.
She said the tape showed that it was the cop who was the aggressor.
“The video doesn’t lie,” she said. Sallee said when it comes to recording, consent is not needed.
“When you know I’m a police officer, I’m in uniform, you have a reduced expectation of privacy,” he said. “You have a public official on duty working for the state.”
Turner said there is a law that also states even if a citizen does not know someone is a police officer they can still record them if they’re engaged in a criminal investigation.
“So we have the right to record in the course of our duties if it’s a criminal investigation,” he said.
Sallee said an officer has the right to review their own videos but can’t access other officers’ videos. Supervisors at certain administrative levels can also access a video recording, Salle said.
Turner said the only time the public will actually have access to a recording is when criminal charges are filed and the video is released as part of evidence.
The miniaturized fish-eye cameras record at an officer’s eye level, the officers have the option to use a flex camera, which fits on the side of the head, or use a body-worn camera that sits on an officer’s shoulder.
Sallee said the camera wouldn’t be recording at all times. An officer has the ability to turn the cameras on and off. He said the recording of incidents would be controlled by policy direction.
Sallee said the cameras feature pre-event recording.
Once an officer hits the record button the camera reaches back 30-seconds, keeps that footage and continues rolling forward. The initial 30 seconds do not capture audio.
Marcus Womack, general manager of evidence.com, the company responsible for the cameras and storage with TASER, said the storage of footage is cloud-based.
He said to store footage officers drop their device into a docking station and the footage uploads into evidence.com’s secured file server.
Evidence.com acts as the central library for the footage.
Womack said there has been a spike in the number of police departments using body cameras.
“We’ve seen a rise of agencies that are more interested in having body cameras on officers as opposed to traditionally having them in their car,” he said.
In California, seven other agencies are testing the body-worn cameras. These include the Corona Police Department, Rialto Police Department and Merced Police Department. Manteca Police Department, Piedmont Police Department and the Bay Area Rapid Transit Police also have the cameras.
Sallee said the cameras range from $300 to $500 depending on the camera. An evidence.com basic subscription costs $9.95 a month.
Sallee said the body cams would also monitor the department’s officers.
“Our interest in the cameras is solely based upon our interest in the accountability within our department to make sure our officers are doing the right thing,” Salle said.