After ironing out a few technical kinks, Rio Dell Police Chief Graham Hill and each of his four officers are now outfitted with body cameras to wear in the field. The department is the second in the county to fully deploy the cutting edge technology, joining the Ferndale Police Department, which made the plunge with little fanfare a few years back.
Meanwhile the county’s largest police force — the Eureka Police Department — is set to begin testing cameras in the field in the coming weeks with the hopes of outfitting all its officers with cameras by the end of the year.
The city of Rio Dell approved the purchase of the body cameras back in March
, but Hill said the department only started using them in the field a couple of weeks ago, the launch having been delayed by some software compatibility issues.
Since we last talked body cameras with Hill back in March, he’s also crafted a body camera policy for the department. Under the policy, officers are expected to activate their cameras for all enforcement and investigative contacts, traffic stops and self-initiated citizen contacts. A general rule of thumb, Hill said, is that if an officer is calling dispatch to report that he or she is going to contact a citizen, “that’s a pretty good indicator that you should also turn your camera on.”
Additionally, Hill said, officers are expected to switch their cameras on anytime a situation turns “adversarial,” though he added that the policy specifies officers should never prioritize turning on the camera over their safety, or that of anyone else. Hill said the policy also gives officers some discretion to end or delay recording in instances when citizen privacy outweighs the potential importance of recording and to be sensitive “to the dignity of all individuals being recorded.”
Instances when officers violate the policy by failing to turn on their cameras, Hill said, will be considered on a case-by-case basis.
Meanwhile, EPD Capt. Brian Stephens said the department currently has two test model body cameras — one by Taser and another by Watchguard — that it’s hoping to get out in the field by July 1. The plan, Stephens said, is to test the cameras with a wide variety of officers — patrol, detectives, traffic enforcement, etc. — under a wide variety of conditions over a 60-day period. But, first, the department has to get a preliminary policy in place.
The draft policy — which is currently being reviewed by the city attorney — would require officers to turn on their cameras for all enforcement-related citizen contacts, including traffic stops, field interviews, detentions, arrests and calls for service, as well as during the service of all warrants. But like that of Rio Dell, Stephens said EPD’s policy maintains that officer and citizen safety are paramount and should never be jeopardized in favor of turning on the camera. EPD’s draft policy also gives officers some discretion to cease filming in situations that could cause “humiliation or embarrassment,” or jeopardize privacy rights (like in hospitals). The policy also forbids recording any nonwork-related activity, or in places where people have a legitimate expectation of privacy: the department break room, bathrooms and dressing rooms.
On the topic of filming in private residences, Stephens said EPD’s policy makes clear officers are expected to keep their cameras rolling. “When law enforcement has a lawful presence in their homes — if we’re there for a reason — than we will film inside private residences,” he said. But Stephens quickly added that if officers are at a residence simply to take a crime report — like for a burglary or theft — they “would not film those types of situations.”
But Stephens stressed that the policy is still in its draft stage, and that the preliminary policy will be subject to change as officers run into real-life situations while testing the technology in the field. “There’s a lot of stuff to think about,” he said. The captain said he's hoping a department-wide camera program will be up and running by Oct. 1, but conceded that might be a bit overly optimistic.
Overall, Stephens said, officers on the force think the cameras will be a positive addition. “They understand the importance of the cameras,” he said.
While the potential benefits of increased accountability and better evidence collection have been widely touted, Hill said that in the weeks the cameras have been live in Rio Dell, he’s already seen another benefit as well.
Hill said he was reviewing footage he’d taken during a citizen contact, trying to pull a picture of a suspect involved in an auto theft, when something jumped out at him: He hadn't followed best practices when contacting a potentially dangerous subject and had left himself vulnerable. “I was not in a safe location,” Hill said, “and that didn’t occur to me until I saw it on video. And that’s a position I won’t put myself in again.”
If you find yourself being stopped by a cop in Rio Dell, remember to smile and maybe even fix your hair: You’ll be on camera.