Watching the watchmen
Oxnard, Ventura police considering the potential use of body cameras
By Chris O'Neal 01/09/2014
On Nov. 19, an Oxnard man uploaded a video to YouTube showing an arrest in progress. Off. Moses Martinez and his partner stopped an Oxnard resident for possession of a loaded firearm and were placing the man under arrest when Martinez spotted “Angel B,” as he is known on YouTube, filming.
What happened next is a large reason why local police departments across the nation are expanding the use of monitoring devices on officers.
Martinez approaches the videographer and, without a word, reaches out for the camera. The video ends.
Carlos Miller is the publisher and editor of Photography is Not a Crime (PINAC), a blog based upon user-submitted content generally involving interactions with police officers. After Angel B’s video was posted to YouTube, Miller wrote about it for PINAC from his home in Miami, Flo., creating a flood of inquiries onto the Oxnard Police Department’s Facebook page.
For Miller, PINAC is an outlet for citizens to use to protect themselves.
“The whole point in the beginning was to document my own trial,” said Miller, who was arrested in 2007 after photographing officers. Six and a half years later, PINAC has reported on hundreds of officer-citizen altercations. “I’m writing at least five stories a week; it’s on going.”
Cases across the country have sparked debate on how to better monitor the actions of officers.
On New Year’s Day 2009, San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit police officer Johannes Mehserle fatally shot Oscar Grant after a brief struggle. The incident was captured by a private citizen who uploaded the video to YouTube, where it captured views in the millions, and resulted in mass protests and a civil trial.
In 2011, Kelly Thomas, a homeless man residing in Fullerton, died after a struggle with Fullerton police. The officers at first claimed that Thomas had resisted arrest, but video footage filmed by a bystander released later contradicted the officer’s story. Several Fullerton police officers are currently on trial for murder.
In a statement released following the incident involving Officer Martinez, the department accepted the comments as a formal complaint and began an investigation.
The department has conducted field tests of body cameras in the past. Officers have also carried cameras of their own accord. For a program to work, however, Cmdr. Scott Hebert said that he believes that a lot of work will need to go in to infrastructure and the question of how and where to store the footage.
“Until we work those things out, we’re not going to deploy body cameras,” said Hebert.
The Los Angeles Police Department and the Ventura Police Department are currently field testing body cameras on officers. Presently, the Oxnard Police Department requires mandatory audio recording for all officers.
The Ventura Police Department has a small number of officers equipped with body cameras from various companies. Now in the testing phase, the department expects to deploy body cameras for every officer in several months. As far as whether the cameras usefulness outweighs the cost, Cmdr. Al Davis said that he believes that it is yet to be determined.
“It’s going to help from an investigative standpoint,” said Davis. “Now you’ll have a camera that shows what really happened in any type of altercation. It’s not going to record everything, but it will certainly be more information than you could have had.”
The Oxnard Police Department will be watching the Ventura and Los Angeles police departments closely as to whether or not to equip their own officers with the devices, but are not opposed to being filmed by citizens. As far as the incident involving Off. Martinez is concerned, Cmdr. Hebert could not speak on the details.
“People can film all they want as long as they don’t interfere with us doing our job,” said Hebert. “Obviously we’re conducting an investigation. There’s enough concern that we know we need to see if there are any policy violations or training issues.”
Miller cited numerous court cases that have sided in favor of plaintiffs who have sued after being arrested for filming officers on duty. In 38 states including California, it is legal to film police officers as long as the officer is not interfered with. In some states, like Illinois where recording the police has been met with harsh punishment, courts are slowly eroding the power of the state to quell the documenting of officers.
“They train cops to take control of the investigation,” said Miller. “They think, well, I’ve got to take their camera. Well, no. Recording is protected by the First Amendment. There is no debate about it.”
Miller said he was pleased with the speediness of the Oxnard Police Department’s response to Angel B’s video, but was quick to note that it was an exception to the norm.
“It’s a rare occurrence for them to admit making a mistake,” said Miller on police departments in general. “A lot of times when we’ve linked to the Facebook page of the police department, they start deleting the comments. What [the OPD] did, which I thought was impressive, is that they didn’t waste any time — that video was posted on a weekday night, the next morning they were already addressing it.”
As technology becomes more affordable, Miller said that he believes that there should be no excuse for a police department not to equip their officers with cameras, for both the protection of the officer and the citizen, a sentiment that Cmdr. Hebert, who has been with the Oxnard Police Department for 25 years, agrees with.
“In the past when we didn’t have the technology or there was resistance to the technology — just look at the day and age we’re in, there’s an expectation from the community to have better information,” said Hebert. “Evolution is how I refer to it.”