UPDATE: San Jose Police will further investigate the use of body cameras

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The San Jose Police Department is updating how it reviews its use of body cameras, but the changes aren’t as significant as some had hoped.

The San Jose City Council unanimously approved a new auditing policy on Tuesday, which calls for hiring a senior analyst to verify whether police officers are using body cameras correctly and provide a weekly report to supervisors. The audit will examine when cameras are turned on and off, if captured videos are uploaded and if images are associated with the correct incidents. What it won’t examine is what happens during the footage to determine if there is excessive use of force, bias-based reporting or other actions that would require disciplinary action.

Council member Maya Esparza, one of the council members who ordered the SJPD to start auditing body cameras two years ago, said the updated policy was a good step. But she would like to see additional audits of the footage for more transparency.

“It was a benefit for the city when we saw these images,” Esparza said. “It’s a benefit for the agent, it’s a benefit for the community and I think it’s a very important tool for us as a city.”

She asked city staff at the meeting to draft a more extensive audit policy and fund it in next year’s budget, funding permitting.

The proposed audit does not appear to be very different from existing procedures for monitoring body camera compliance. Since 2016, the SJPD has produced a quarterly report indicating whether there is any footage associated with an incident. Between April and June 2021, 98% of officers turned on their body cameras during calls, according to SJPD data. The ministry did not provide data for other months.

The new audit process uses the body camera system to capture more specific usage data. It shows when and if all officers involved in an incident have their cameras turned on, which the SJPD has not captured in the past.

“There may have been four officers responding to the event, and only three having their (body cameras) turned on,” Police Chief Anthony Mata wrote in a memo to council members. “In this case, the existing report would show that there was (body camera) compliance, even though that compliance was only held by 75% of the officers at the scene.”

The quarterly report simply indicates whether or not there is a single body camera file per event. The new audit process will provide more insight into body camera procedural compliance.

“This spot check is going to be really important,” council member Raul Peralez told San José Spotlight. “I think we are absolutely going to find officers who are non-compliant.”

He said non-compliant officers would likely be due to user error, such as forgetting to activate the camera, but could also reveal other challenges.

Peralez also said the new policy changes the frequency of compliance reviews, which can help supervisors determine if there is wrongdoing in the footage.

“If an officer sees something, he can absolutely launch another investigation,” Peralez said. “But you’re probably not going to see that happen often because that’s not the intent of this particular policy.”

Esparza said determining any excessive use of force or other wrongdoing is part of the intent. She and council member Sylvia Arenas asked the SJPD to draft an audit policy in June 2020 after days of nationwide civil unrest following the police killing of George Floyd. It’s part of a long list of efforts, including the creation of the Advisory Committee on Reinventing Public Safety to improve police and community relations. In 2021, nearly one in three SJPD officers received a complaint, compared to one in four in 2020.

Cost issues

In the memo to the board, Mata wrote that some departments were looking into the body camera like the Los Angeles Police Department or the Orange County Sheriff’s Office, and it had positive impacts. Police departments that reviewed the footage were able to determine deficiencies while officers were in the field to correct errors or improve policing, Mata wrote.

Other departments have also turned to footage to see when their officers are stressed or frustrated in the field. In response, supervisors are able to step in or refer them to employee assistance programs, alleviating potential issues related to agent strain.

But the SJPD doesn’t want to set up a similar procedure to review and watch the footage because it would cost about $1 million to $2 million a year, according to Mata’s memo. By comparison, a senior analyst performing the weekly data audit costs $153,500 per year.

SJPD declined to comment.

Peralez said there are better ways to invest the money to produce better policing. However, Esparza thinks the cost of reviewing the images is worth it. The same goes for NAACP Silicon Valley chapter president Bob Nuñez, who said the updated audit policy will have virtually no impact because the substance of the videos remains unreviewed.

“The data by itself doesn’t make sense,” Nuñez told San José Spotlight. “It’s not about how often it’s on and off, it’s actually what you see, what the officers are doing in the field.”

Nuñez said he would like to see an outside agency like the Independent Police Auditor review the footage to ensure interactions with the public are fair. The logic used by the SJPD for not carrying out a more thorough audit is disappointing and flawed, he said.

“I don’t appreciate hearing that we can’t afford to do the right thing,” Nuñez said. “I think we would like to know that we are doing a good job. And in those times when in fact we are not, then we can correct ourselves. It is money well spent.

Contact Jana Kadah at [email protected] or @Jana_Kadah on Twitter.

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