Law enforcement officials, protesters alike favor bodycams; sheriff, supervisors debate reasons for delay

Motorcycle deputies line Valencia Blvd. Thursday afternoon as protesters gather at the SCV Sheriff's Station. June 4, 2020. Bobby Block / The Signal.

Do local sheriff’s deputies wear “bodycams”? The answer is, only if they buy them with their own funds — at least for now.

While top Santa Clarita Valley law enforcement officials and Black Lives Matter protesters alike have voiced their support for body-worn cameras, Sheriff Alex Villanueva and county officials dispute the reasons for the delay in the program.

Since the death of George Floyd on Memorial Day, a black man killed by a Minneapolis police officer while detained and with the officer’s knee on the back of Floyd’s neck for close to nine minutes, large-scale protests have occurred across the country, with Santa Clarita being no different.

The local protests have remained peaceful over the last two weeks, with no arrests, no reported property damage and no use-of-force instances, according to SCV Sheriff’s Station officials. And, although the officers in Minneapolis have been charged in connection to Floyd’s death, protesters in Santa Clarita, as recently as Friday, have organized demonstrations in search of institutional changes in policing.

Event organizer Megan Duncan, right, hands out literature at the protest held in front of Santa Clarita City Hall in Valencia on Friday, June 12, 2020. Dan Watson/the Signal

One such policy change that has been regularly brought up is body-worn cameras on all Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies. Currently, deputies in the SCV, along with the 41 other Sheriff’s Department contract cities, do not have access to body-worn cameras, unless the deputies pay for them themselves.

Although not in Santa Clarita, the question was renewed this week after the Lancaster Sheriff’s Station reported a deputy-involved shooting had occurred Thursday morning in Lancaster. Deputies responding to a domestic violence report made contact with the suspect, a 60-year-old black man. An altercation is reported to have occurred during which a deputy discharged his weapon. The suspect was pronounced dead at a hospital.

In a statement released Thursday morning, sheriff’s officials said the suspect had been shot after he attempted to grab the responding deputy’s gun. However, according to Deputy Eric Ortiz of the Sheriff’s Information Bureau, the deputies involved in the incident were not wearing bodycams that would have been able to confirm this report.

Specifically in the SCV, between February 2019 and January 2020 the SCV Sheriff’s Station had 83 instances of use of force, and yet bodycam footage is rarely, if ever, available because the county does not provide deputies with the body-worn cameras.

Protesters paint signs near the fountain in front of Santa Clarita City Hall in Valencia on Friday, June 12, 2020. Dan Watson/the Signal

Footage of a fatal deputy-involved shooting from March 1, where a 32-year-old suspect was killed, was made available to the public, but the footage of the incident was captured on the security cameras at the SCV Sheriff’s Station, where the shooting took place.

And even if body-worn cameras had been in use, the cameras would have been the personal property of the deputies involved, as the Sheriff’s Department has yet to issue a department-wide policy for the usage of bodycams. According to Deputy Maria Lucero, also of SIB, the footage captured on those cameras, had they been purchased by the deputies themselves, would have been the property of each individual deputy.

Unlike a daily arrest log, which is made available to the public, that footage is the personal property of the deputy, Lucero said, and would require a court order to be viewed.

The issue of body-worn cameras seems not to be a point of contention between local law enforcement and protesters. On Friday, Capt. Justin Diez of the SCV Sheriff’s Station voiced his support for body-worn cameras, saying that he, along with the other SCV deputies, would all want to wear the body cameras.

A protester uses a mega phone to lead chants during the protest held in front of Santa Clarita City Hall in Valencia on Friday, June 12, 2020. Dan Watson/the Signal

Diez said the benefit of bodycams to law enforcement is two-pronged: one, there’s audio, and two, the angle of the camera would be chest-high, and better positioned to capture what exactly happened.

“The camera is capturing exactly what you’re seeing in real time,” said Diez, “as opposed to a surveillance camera that could be mounted high, no audio, could be black and white, it could be recorded at a slow frame per second or a fast frame per second.”

Similarly, local protesters have also voiced their support for bodycams, saying it would be a step in the right direction.

“It is a really good idea for law enforcement, it would be really good for citizens, more than it would be good for law enforcement,” said Layla Hughes, an 18-year-old Santa Clarita resident who has been helping organize local SCV protests.

Event organizer Lauryn (cq) Valley speaks to protesters in front of Santa Clarita City Hall in Valencia on Friday, June 12, 2020. Dan Watson/the Signal

Hughes added, however, that in addition to the bodycams, she would want to see guaranteed oversight and transparency for the program, ensuring the cameras could not be turned off and that there would be repercussions for deputies who do so.

Despite the apparent consensus that body-worn cameras would be a good idea, Villanueva and county officials disagree on the reasons why such a program has not yet been implemented.

Both camps have voiced their support for a body-worn camera program, with Villanueva saying as recently as the SCV town hall held on Thursday that he has asked for the program; the Board of Supervisors on Sept. 24 approved a motion to authorize the sheriff’s implementation of the program.

The parties disagree, though, on why after 18 months since Villanueva introduced the motion and nine months after the Board of Supervisors approved the program, deputies still don’t have access to bodycams.

County CEO Sachi Hamai has said that $34.78 million has been set aside in the budget for the program, and that the funds are accessible to the sheriff once he submits a budget request.

So far, all requests submitted to the county have been honored, and all set-aside funds have been used for pre-rollout preparations, such as creating the infrastructure and acquiring the technology needed for the program.

Protesters in front of Santa Clarita City Hall in Valencia on Friday, June 12, 2020. Dan Watson/the Signal

The CEO’s office said on Friday, however, that “the sheriff is still in the midst of the RFP (request for proposals) to procure actual BWC equipment and services whose rollout is optimistically projected to begin in the latter half of this year.”

At least twice in the last week, Villanueva has disputed the notion that the onus for the delay in the bodycams for LASD deputies is on the department, saying on Thursday that he was going to lay the delay “right on the feet of the Board of Supervisors.

“Acted upon in December 2018, we would have had this up and running by the fall of last year,” said Villanueva. “The red tape of the county is at the discretion of the Board of Supervisors, and (shows) how important it is in their priorities. In terms of the Sheriff’s Department and our bid to be as transparent as possible, we need the body-worn cameras so all these use-of-force incidents, we have a perspective that is complete documentation from start to finish.”

County officials said Friday that the recent budget shortfall for the LASD did delay funds for the new program, but they remain available once they are needed.

“Separate and unrelated (to body-worn cameras), the sheriff’s budget is projected to incur a significant shortfall,” said a statement Friday from the CEO’s office. “In response, the board withheld a portion of the sheriff’s overall budget to encourage him to reign in costs. Recently, the board approved releasing a portion of these withheld funds. The amount released was based on historical spending and the sheriff’s official budget status reports, which unfortunately did not accurately reflect BWC allocations and, as a result, the CEO inadvertently realigned the funds.”

The CEO’s office statement added: “The CEO has been actively working with the department to restore that realignment and a correcting adjustment will take place in June 2020. Again, all BWC funding thus far has been for pre-rollout preparations, which should not impact the BWC implementation schedule to equip deputies in the field.”

The Sheriff’s Department responded to Hamai’s office in a statement sent to The Signal on Friday, saying that the funding for body-worn cameras was being unfrozen, but that the original issue with the budget back in April has created a six-month delay in the program.

“The size of the body-worn camera project requires uninterrupted funding,” said the statement from Villanueva’s office. “The current budget process requires the LASD to make multiple funding requests, creates delays and makes a smooth cadence of deployment difficult for the LASD.”

The department is working out an agreement with a body-worn camera vendor and will submit a budget request for board approval once it is settled, according to LASD officials.

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