Capitola: First City in Santa Cruz County to Adopt Body Cameras

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Photo courtesy of Watchguard Digital Video Systems.
Photo courtesy of Watchguard Digital Video Systems.

Capitola police officers will be equipped with 20 body cameras and nine vehicle cameras come July, with the help of a $100,501 state grant. Many community members are celebrating the purchase as a step toward ensuring public protection, but some argue that body cameras are not the end-all solution to police violence and discrimination.

Capitola City Council member Michael Termini said voting on the purchase was an easy process for the City Council due to “the way [Capitola police officers] have handled themselves in the past without body cameras,” noting officers’ allegedly responsible conduct.

“There was no pushback whatsoever,” Termini said. “The [Police Officers Association] was completely in favor of it and it was a real Kumbaya moment. It took us about six minutes to vote on this in the chambers. Not that there was discomfort before, but there’s an extra layer of comfort with regard to knowing that any action taken by the police is on record.”

Capitola is the first city in Santa Cruz County to adopt body cameras. When asked why the Santa Cruz Police Department (SCPD) hasn’t acquired the equipment, Deputy Chief Steven Clark said the department would first need to examine several variables.

“It is prudent to consider some important legal and cost issues that still need to be worked through first. Early adopters of this technology are still struggling to resolve these issues,” Clark said in an email.

He said among the most important issues to consider are how to handle privacy, including determining the appropriate circumstances under which to record and those under which recordings could be released to the public.

The Capitola Police Department (CPD) kept these same concerns in mind when writing its body camera policy, which says there are circumstances in which a police officer is allowed to turn his or her body camera off. Capitola Police Chief Rudy Escalante said there are specific people who may not want to be recorded.

“Sexual assault victims or people who want to give information about criminal activity without wanting to be revealed,” Escalante said. “People need to know they can still do that. It’s going to add to the transparency that people want.”

After eight months of researching different vendors, CPD settled on a video recording system from Watchguard Digital Video Systems. The equipment streamlines the video between the car cameras and the body cameras through a Bluetooth connection. When the officer is in the police car, the car camera will be recording. As soon as the officer steps out of the car, however, the body camera automatically turns on, Escalante said.

Several organizations have expressed their support for Capitola’s decision, the Santa Cruz chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) being among them. Simba Kenyatta, president of the Santa Cruz chapter, said the body cameras will be a good thing and that he has to “give cops credit for that.”

Kenyatta joined the Black Panther Party when he was 16 years old. Now 62, he has been involved in organizations for the progress of the black community ever since. When asked if he thought body cameras would put an end to police violence, Kenyatta blurted out a hearty laugh. “No,” he said.

Keith McHenry, a local activist, also said he does not think implementing body cameras will singlehandedly end police violence and discrimination. Leader of the nonprofit organization Food Not Bombs, McHenry has been arrested over 100 times and said he has been subject to frequent harassment by law enforcement.

“I’m skeptical of the body cameras being the so-called solution to the police violence crisis that America’s facing,” McHenry said. “The biggest issue is a lot of money is going into cameras, and they’re ignoring the more important issue surrounding law enforcement — the racism of law enforcement.”

When discussing different tactics of combating police violence and racism among police officers, Kenyatta and McHenry both said punishing police officers for offenses in the same way that private individuals are punished may be a better solution to the problem.

Six Baltimore police officers were charged with murder two weeks ago following the death of a black man in police custody. Freddie Gray, 25, was arrested in Baltimore on April 12. He died from a severe spinal injury a week later.

After the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin and other unarmed black folks whose deaths by police officers made national news, Kenyatta said he is happy the six officers in the Freddie Gray case are seeing the other end of the “so-called justice system.”

“It’s so rare for police to be indicted, let alone convicted, so the thing in Baltimore was really heartening to a lot of black people,” Kenyatta said. “Finally, we at least got this charge. There’s no indictment, there’s no conviction, but at least they took the first step and that’s very unusual.”

Compared to Baltimore, Capitola has a much smaller population, and a small number of incidents of police brutality, Chief Escalante said. But he still wants the police department to maintain a high standard of public security.

“You have to get it right every time and that’s hard to do,” Escalante said. “Most people do not have contact with law enforcement, and when they do, we’ve got to get it right as best we can. Are we perfect? Absolutely not. Are we going to make mistakes? Yeah. Can we? We shouldn’t, but we do. We see them all the time. But this affords us an opportunity to give greater insight into the work we do.”

Supporters argue that the body cameras will make police officers more accountable, but skeptical community members maintain that people should not trust the new equipment — or the police — so easily.

“It doesn’t end anything. It doesn’t solve anything,” Kenyatta said. “It’s just a step toward something that looks like justice.”