Marin, Calif., Watchdog Urges Police to Buy Body-Worn Cameras

Body cameras are less expensive and provide a more accurate record than vehicle mounted cameras, said the grand jury.


Local police agencies that aren't already using body-worn cameras should seek funding to acquire the technology, the Marin County, Calif., Civil Grand Jury said in a new report.

"A modern law enforcement agency must take advantage of innovation that can reduce its liabilities and increase citizens' trust," the panel said. "The Grand Jury believes that on-officer cameras will become an integral part of policing, now and in the future."

The panel, an independent watchdog group that investigates local government, examined the use of cameras at 10 local law enforcement agencies. Its report — titled "Get the Picture? Audiovisual Technology and Marin Law Enforcement" — was released Tuesday.

The grand jury finished the report before the San Rafael Police Department's recent announcement it had started a 90-day test program of body-worn recorders. Tiburon and Belvedere police had been using them already.

The grand jury also researched whether local departments used two other forms of camera technology: license plate scanners and video cameras in patrol vehicles. It found that all but one agency, the Fairfax Police Department, used at least one of the three types of devices.

The grand jury said the body-worn recorders are the best choice because they are relatively inexpensive — $500 to $1,200 each — and can provide the most accurate record of an incident.

Conversely, vehicle cameras only record what is in front of them, while license plate scanners are effective but cost up to $19,000 and raise concerns about privacy.

The panel did acknowledge one drawback of the body-worn devices: the fact that an officer can forget to turn the device on during an interaction — or intentionally turn it off to avoid a recording.

"Although equipment can occasionally malfunction and batteries lose their charge, clear departmental policies mandating when and how these devices are to be used must be established," the jury said. "Officers should be trained to understand the use and the utility of the body cameras they wear, and they must be called to account if they fail to follow departmental policy."

The grand jury recommended all Marin law enforcement agencies use the body-worn cameras and urged the Board of Supervisors and city councils to find the funding. It has requested responses from the relevant officials.

Several law enforcement officials expressed favorable opinions Thursday regarding the officer-worn cameras.

"We have been evaluating the use of cameras for two years and feel the technology is now available to use the body camera as a tool for our officers," said Central Marin police Chief Todd Cusimano, whose department covers Larkspur, Corte Madera, Greenbrae and San Anselmo. "We are looking at purchasing a number of body cameras for a testing period."

Fairfax police Chief Christopher Morin said the department does not use license plate scanners for financial reasons, but that he is interested in body-worn and vehicle cameras.

"I am closely following San Rafael's testing," Morin said.

Sheriff Robert Doyle said his department has not used vehicle cameras because they are expensive, have fixed views and are primarily used in traffic-type calls. But he is interested in body cameras.

"At some time in the near future we'll probably move forward with a test," Doyle said. "I think that they're an excellent tool."

The Marin County Civil Grand Jury consists of 19 residents who serve one-year terms. It is empowered by the local judiciary to conduct confidential investigations.

©2014 The Marin Independent Journal (Novato, Calif.)