Prompted by an inmate’s fatal beating and outrage over police shootings, Santa Clara County has adopted a plan to equip sheriff’s deputies and jail officers with body cameras.
In a unanimous vote Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors approved a five-year $4 million contract with Taser International to outfit 1,142 officers with cameras.
Supervisor Joe Simitian first proposed body cameras at the end of 2014, a year marked by the police shooting that killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and launched the Black Lives Matter movement. A year later, the murder of San Jose inmate Michael Tyree—allegedly at the hands of three jail deputies—prompted Simitian to expand the body camera proposal to include correctional officers.
“We can watch with anguish what’s happened in other communities around the country, shake our heads, and then move on, or, we can accept the responsibility to do something,” Simitian said in a statement after Tuesday’s vote. “These certainly aren’t problems that are going to solve themselves. The technology is available, and I think we ought to be using it.”
The county’s body-cam policy brings it in line with other major law enforcement agencies, which began deploying the technology as an accountability tool. San Jose began rolling out body cameras in 2016—eight years behind Campbell, the first South Bay city to adopt the technology.
Civil rights advocates raised concerns about how the cameras would be deployed, arguing that the technology is only as useful as the policy guiding its use. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) expressed concerns that the cameras could become another tool for the government to spy on civilians.
“Body cameras are meant to be tools for accountability, not for general surveillance, and especially not to gather information on individuals as they exercise their First Amendment protected speech, association, or religion,” the EFF wrote in a letter co-signed by the ACLU and the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
Simitian agreed that body cameras are no panacea, but the benefits have been demonstrated in agencies that have adopted them.
“I think cameras can protect the public against officer misconduct, protect the officers against unfounded allegations, and help restore trust and confidence in law enforcement and public institutions generally,” he said.
But cameras are only one part of a larger plan to increase transparency, Simitian added. That plan includes training officers to recognize their own implicit bias, which the county has been working on. It also includes effective civilian oversight of the Sheriff’s Office and the jails, which was proposed in the wake of Tyree’s death but never enacted. A proposal for civilian oversight is expected to come before the board in June.
“If we do all three we have the best possible chance of averting tragedy and building trust,” Simitian said in a press release. “And building trust is key to keeping our law enforcement folks safe as well.”