California's best-known law enforcement agency will begin testing body cameras next year under a proposal included in the state budget that lawmakers will consider on Friday.
The budget gives the California Highway Patrol $1 million to develop policies that address some of the most pressing concerns about law enforcement's use of body cameras to record their interactions with the public. They include protecting the privacy of innocent citizens, how to store and when to publicly release the footage, and whether officers should be allowed to view the video before they write their reports.
The CHP would draft a policy by Jan. 1, then a sampling of officers would begin testing the cameras next year in four areas of the state.
Assemblyman Reginald Jones-Sawyer, D-Los Angeles, chairman of a public safety budget subcommittee that sought the funding, said he wants the CHP to look for the best practices in all areas — but that lawmakers will be looking over their shoulders.
"Right now, all law enforcement has an image problem," Jones-Sawyer said, referring to recent nationwide police shootings of unarmed minority suspects. "They've got to show that they can police their own. ... If they can show how an officer would not be able to get away with misconduct, then we can move forward."
Highway Patrol Commissioner Joseph Farrow said the program would begin with fewer than 200 of his nearly 8,000 officers wearing the cameras, mainly because of the complexity and expense of storing hours of video footage in a manner in which it can be cataloged, downloaded as necessary and collated with related footage of the same incident from other officers and from cameras already mounted in patrol cars. He noted that his officers statewide make about 4 million contacts with people each year.
Jones-Sawyer said he wants the program eventually extended to all CHP officers statewide, which he previously estimated would cost about $10 million, and to serve as "the premier body camera policy and procedure program that every other state or local municipality would emulate."
Attorney General Kamala Harris earlier this year said her department will be the first statewide agency to adopt a body camera program, though policies there are still being developed.
Highway Patrol officers are allowed to view video recorded by their patrol car cameras before writing their reports, but Farrow acknowledged that is opposed by civil rights advocates who say it can influence investigations into questionable police conduct.
"That's the crux of a lot of the discussion that's gone on across the nation," Farrow said. "That's certainly something that we're going to have to look at."
The issue tripped up a bill by Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, D-San Diego, whose AB66 tried to set statewide standards for use of body cameras. She intends to pursue the measure again next year and said she hopes information from the CHP test program will help guide her final bill.
"Body cameras are the future of law enforcement," said Assemblyman Luis Alejo, D-Watsonville, who wants the state to help pay for local agencies' camera programs. "It's already proven that it's not only good for the community ... but it's also good for the officers."
His AB65 would have created a grant program of about $30 million each year for local programs. The bill stalled, but Alejo was pleased the pending budget includes $6 million for local grants that could include body camera programs.