Murrieta Police Department has begun exploring the use of police body cameras, falling in step with nearly a third of law enforcement agencies across the country.
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 32 percent of U.S. police agencies were using body cameras in 2013.
The department received five GoPro test units, July 6, Murrieta Police Department Capt. Robert Firmes said. The test units were offered to the department free of charge for a 45-day trial period, though the department asked for and was granted an extension.
“They said that they would extend that time, but they didn’t give me a deadline yet,” Firmes said. “So it’s not indefinite, but they’re flexible with how long we can keep them.”
Body cameras are something Murrieta Police Chief Sean Hadden has wanted to try out for some time, Firmes said, but the department had other priorities to attend to first, including changing over to Riverside County radio system and updating its dispatch software.
“He felt like this was now a time where we could take it on and have the time to do it,” Firmes said.
The test cameras are surprisingly small – just a few inches across. They can be attached to officers’ uniforms using either a traditional clip or a pair of magnets.
A sergeant is currently experimenting with one of the units, but policy will have to be created before the full test can be implemented, Firmes said.
“Policy entails, basically, the purpose and scope of the program, which is obviously to collect more accurate evidence,” Firmes said. “It talks about when you would and would not turn the camera on, because there are also privacy considerations that have to be vetted out. You wouldn’t want to turn it on if you were in a hospital or something, capturing protected HIPPA information or something like that, so all of those types of things have to be worked out before we can actually put it out for a test.”
Firmes said he expects policy development to take about a month. There is not yet a timeline for when full body camera implementation may occur, and Firmes said the department hasn’t reached a decision on whether it will test any other body camera brands.
A group, including department management, line-level staff and the Murrieta Police Officers Association, was set to hash out the policy in a meeting the week of Aug. 7, Firmes said. The department has been in talks with the Cathedral City Police Department, which began using GoPro body cameras in late 2016, to gain insight into the implementation process.
Lt. Paul Herrera of Cathedral City said while officers in the department are not required to have their cameras on at all times, “they’re instructed to turn them on at any significant event, anything that would involve a potential criminal violation or anything they would foresee as a complaint.”
However, Herrera said the Cathedral City Police Department, which has about 30 fewer officers than Murrieta, purchased the GoPro cameras and software access at a cost of approximately $100,000, spread out over five years.
Firmes said the Murrieta Police Department feels the cameras, once in place, will aid in prosecution of suspects and show transparency to the public.
“It’s just a very indisputable, accurate way of collecting evidence,” he said. “It’s hard to refute what you see on a screen.”
Firmes said in talking to other agencies that have already deployed body cameras, the department has found that few officers remain unconvinced of their usefulness.
“Even the officers at those agencies who were initially resistant – because there’s a little bit of a sentiment from some officers that feel like the public’s not trusting them. The public’s not trusting their word anymore, so they have to record it to prove it – but the vast majority of those officers have been convinced of the value of the camera after they’ve worn it, because it ends up proving them right more often than not,” Firmes said. “And it’s really good for people that file complaints, because we can go right to the camera, and we can see exactly what was said and what occurred. So I think the vast majority of the time, it’s exonerated the officers, and so they’ve come to really embrace it.”
While Firmes said Murrieta police have been “very blessed and very fortunate” to have a community that is more supportive than most, he thinks it’s time for the department to move forward with body cameras.
“I think in the future, you’re going to see that it becomes a natural part of police work,” he said. “And I think the courts and the judges are going to come to expect and demand that type of evidence.”