Paso Robles police test body cameras as programs grow in SLO County

The Paso Robles Police Department recently began testing a body-camera program, joining nearly all other San Luis Obispo County law enforcement agencies in piloting or adopting the new technology.

The devices have garnered attention in recent years, especially after the 2014 officer-involved shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black man, in Ferguson, Missouri. The incident prompted calls for expanded body camera use, which some said could have provided a better understanding of the events leading up to the shooting.

Since then, body cameras have become a more visible policing tool. The Department of Justice in 2015 awarded more than $23 million in grants to help police departments purchase body cameras, train officers and study the devices’ impact.

Two years ago, a Tribune investigation into body cameras showed only three of the eight law enforcement agencies in San Luis Obispo County used them. Now, all but one — Arroyo Grande — either use the devices regularly or are piloting programs.

San Luis Obispo County

Paso Robles police began trying out body cameras — small recording devices affixed to the front of officers’ uniforms — in mid-November, Lt. Tim Murphy said.

The department is borrowing eight cameras from the company that supplies the dashboard cameras for its patrol vehicles, he said.

Officers will test out the cameras’ functionality and provide feedback for at least another month, Murphy said. If all goes well, he said, the department will try to implement a full program as soon as possible.

“The community is going to say, ‘Why aren’t you doing this?’ ” Murphy said. “It’s money well spent.”

Atascadero and Morro Bay started body-camera programs this year. San Luis Obispo has been piloting the devices for close to a year and plans to roll out a full program by March. South County officers are ahead of the curve: Pismo Beach and Grover Beach police have used body cameras for about five years.

Pismo Beach police Chief Jake Miller said the department is looking into enhancements for their cameras, such as night vision, which would help provide a footage of incidents that occur after dark.

The San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office also uses body cameras, but only in its jail and civil division. Deputies taking criminal enforcement action don’t wear them.

Helpful or harmful?

Recent plans to start body-camera programs in major cities such as Chicago have been met with concerns by police officers’ unions, which have expressed worries about disciplinary issues and private conversations between officers being caught on camera.

And officers involved in controversial shootings in Washington, D.C., Chicago and Charlotte, North Carolina, failed to turn on their body cameras before the incidents occurred, rendering the devices useless.

But some San Luis Obispo County law enforcement officers and managers said they believe the devices protect them from unfounded complaints and help with investigations.

Paso Robles police Officer Joseph Leonard said he thinks body cameras are similar to the dashboard cameras and audio recordings the department already uses. He said those pieces of technology have only helped him in the past.

“To me, there’s not really any difference,” he said.

Pismo Beach police Officer Adrian Souza said the body cameras are “awesome,” although they took some time to get used to and have made him more aware of things he says while they’re recording. He said the devices help to more accurately capture the “fluid” nature of police work, which isn’t always conducted in view of a car dashboard.

“It really helps us because it keeps us honest,” Souza said.

Body camera footage was used in 2015 to assess the actions of Pismo Beach police after a Grover Beach woman claimed officers used excessive force when they arrested her on suspicion of being drunk in public. Though the woman accepted a plea deal and the case never went to trial, the body-camera video helped show the incident from the officers’ perspectives.

In such cases, Atascadero police Sgt. Caleb Davis said body cameras provide “a better, transparent picture of what’s happening on the streets.”

“It’s nice to have an actual, factual video of what’s happening,” he said.

Lindsey Holden: 805-781-7939, @lindseyholden27