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How LA's Sheriff Plans To Deploy Body Cameras For A Lot Less Money

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This Sept. 22, 2014 file photo shows a body camera on the uniform of a Los Angeles County Sheriff's deputy at department headquarters in Monterey Park, Calif. It is not necessarily the brand or type that will ultimately be used by the department. (Nick Ut/AP)
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Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva has wasted no time ripping up the body camera program proposed by his predecessor and coming up with his own. And his approach appears to address the cost concerns of the County Board of Supervisors, which must fund any plan.

Villanueva, who took office on Dec. 3, has outlined a plan that he says would cost $13 million annually. Former Sheriff Jim McDonnell said he needed $55 million a year, an amount that made the supervisors balk.

Villanueva also says he would need $15 million in one-time start-up costs -- $5 million less than McDonnell.

The sheriff's department is one of the last big law enforcement agencies that aren't using body-worn cameras.

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During the election campaign Villanueva called them a "nicety" but not a "necessity." Nonetheless he has said he is committed to start deploying body cams in the coming year. McDonnell had called for a four-year rollout.

Some details are sketchy, but here's what we know at this point:

FEWER CAMERAS

The plan calls for equipping about 5,200 deputies with cameras - 800 or so fewer than McDonnell envisioned. Villanueva would reduce the number of cameras deployed in part by not outfitting deputies assigned to the courts, said department spokesman Deputy Robert Boese III. In addition, the department lost part of the contract to patrol the county's mass transit system, so fewer deputies will be deployed on trains and buses, he said.

FEWER HIRES

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One area where Villanueva's plan would seem to hold down costs is in hiring. The sheriff said he expects only a "minimal" increase in staffing to deal with body cam video. McDonnell said he would need to hire 239 people, including forensic video specialists, detectives and clerical staff.

Villanueva's approach raises the question of whether current employees would be forced to take on the additional work of reviewing and cataloging body camera video.

That's what happened at the Los Angeles Police Department when the city council refused to provide funding for more staff. One captain described spending as much as 10 hours a week reviewing video of uses of force, car chases and episodes that sparked citizen complaints. He said he's assigned two other officers to help.

Any additional hires would come as the sheriff's department faces a deputy shortage that has been variously estimated at 500 to 1,500.

LESS RECORDING

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Villanueva told LAist during the campaign that he'd like to move away from 24/7 recording. He didn't elaborate, but he did talk of mandating recording in "specific high risk scenarios."

The latest police body camera systems have one-minute buffers so they can record what happened up to a minute before they're turned on. Even so, sometimes deputies don't have time to turn on their cameras in high-risk situations, said Cal State Fullerton Criminal Justice Professor Philip Kopp, who studies body cams.

Less recording does mean less storage needs, he said, noting that storage costs are a huge issue for law enforcement.

"I mean you are talking about terabytes upon terabytes of data," Kopp said. "And all of that has to be kept for a specified period of time because it could be evidence ... there are statutes of limitations."

Villanueva told LAist during the campaign that he could cut costs by using "decentralized data storage." The plan would involve "working towards utilizing the best external storage solutions for secure evidence with backup of all data a safe distance away (over 500 miles)," Boese said in an email.

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WHAT'S NEXT

To meet the sheriff's timeline of deploying the body cams within a year, the board of supervisors would have to sign off on a plan. Then the department would need to identify a vendor, sign a contract and build the infrastructure needed to support the cameras, such as docking stations where deputies can upload their information at the end of a shift.

The department already deals with a substantial amount of video captured by more than 1,000 cameras placed inside seven jail facilities. But it's a simpler system: the cameras are stationary and remain on at all times.

Another detail to be worked out is when the sheriff would release video to the public. McDonnell said he was moving toward a policy that would allow the release of most video to the public. Villanueva said he is still mulling over the issue. As of Jan. 1, a new state law will require law enforcement agencies to release body cam video of shootings and major uses of force within 45 days.

Some watchdog groups say the money spent on body cams would be better spent on treating the mentally ill population in the jails. But supporters of body cams say they build trust in police, hold officers more accountable and sometimes provide important evidence in criminal cases.

Departments that have deployed body cams around the country have seen a drop in lawsuits and fewer citizen complaints.


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