UPDATE: San Jose police to further scrutinize use of body cams
San Jose police officers stand outside City Hall on May 30, 2020 on the second day of George Floyd protests. File photo.

The San Jose Police Department is updating how it reviews its use of body cameras, but changes are not as extensive as some hoped.

The San Jose City Council unanimously approved a new audit policy on Tuesday, which calls for the hiring of a senior analyst to monitor if police officers are correctly using body cameras and provide a weekly report to supervisors. The audit will look at when cameras are being turned on and off, whether the captured videos are uploaded and whether the footage is associated with the correct incidents. What it won’t review is what happens during the footage to determine if there’s any excessive use of force, bias-based reporting or other actions that would require disciplinary action.

Councilmember Maya Esparza, one of the councilmembers who directed SJPD to start auditing body cameras two years ago, said the updated policy is a good step. But she would like to see additional audits of the footage for transparency.

“This has been a benefit to the city when we’ve seen that footage,” Esparza said. “It’s a benefit to the officer, it’s a benefit to the community and I think this is a really important tool for us as a city.”

She directed city staff at the meeting to draft a more extensive audit policy and fund it in next year’s budget, if funding allows.

The proposed audit doesn’t seem to differ much from existing procedures to track body camera compliance. Since 2016, SJPD has produced a quarterly report highlighting whether there is footage associated with an incident. Between April and June 2021, 98% of officers turned on their body cameras while out on calls, according to SJPD data. The department did not provide data for other months.

The new auditing process uses the body camera system to capture more specific data about usage. It shows when and if all officers involved in an incident turned on their cameras—something SJPD did not capture in the past.

“There may have been four officers responding to the event, and only three turned on their (body cameras),” Police Chief Anthony Mata wrote in a memo to councilmembers.  “In this case, the existing report would show there was (body camera) compliance, even though that compliance was only held by 75% of the officers on scene.”

The quarterly report simply shows whether or not there is a single body cam file per event. The new auditing process will capture more about body camera procedural compliance.

“This spot check is going to be really important,” Councilmember Raul Peralez told San José Spotlight. “I think we are absolutely going to find officers that are out of compliance.”

He said the officers out of compliance will likely be because of user error such as forgetting to initiate the camera, but could also reveal other challenges.

Peralez also said the new policy changes the frequency of compliance reviews, which may allow supervisors to determine if there is any wrongdoing in the footage.

“If an officer sees something they can absolutely initiate another investigation,” Peralez said. “But you’re probably not going to see that happen often because that’s not the intent of this particular policy.”

Esparza said determining any excessive use of force or other wrongdoing is part of the intent. She and Councilmember Sylvia Arenas directed SJPD to draft an audit policy in June 2020 after days of nationwide civil unrest following the police killing of George Floyd. It is part of a longer list of efforts, including the creation of the Reimagining Public Safety Advisory Committee to improve policing and community relations. In 2021, nearly one of every three SJPD officers received a complaint—up from one in four in 2020.

Cost concerns

In the memo to council, Mata wrote some departments review body cam like the Los Angeles Police Department or Orange County Sheriff’s Office, and it has had positive impacts. Police departments that reviewed footage were able to determine deficiencies while officers were in the field to correct any wrongs or improve policing, Mata wrote.

Other departments have also turned to footage to see when their officers are getting stressed or frustrated in the field. In response, supervisors are able to intervene or refer them to employee assistance programs, thereby mitigating potential issues from the officers’ tension.

But SJPD does not want to implement a similar procedure to review and watch footage because it would cost roughly $1-2 million per year, according to Mata’s memo. In comparison, a senior analyst doing the weekly data audit is $153,500 per year.

SJPD declined to comment.

Peralez said there are better ways to invest the money to produce better policing. However, Esparza believes the cost to review footage is worth it. So does Bob Nuñez, president of the NAACP Silicon Valley chapter, who said the updated audit policy will have virtually no impact because the substance of the videos are still not being reviewed.

“Data by itself is meaningless,” Nuñez told San José Spotlight. “It’s not about how often is it turned on and off, but actually what is seen, what officers are doing out in the field.”

Nuñez said he would like to see an outside agency like the independent police auditor watch the footage to make sure interactions with the public are fair. The logic used by SJPD to not do a more extensive audit is disappointing and flawed, he said.

“I don’t appreciate hearing that we can’t afford to do the right thing,” Nuñez said. “I would think we would want to know that we are doing a good job. And in those times when in fact we’re not, then we can self correct. That is money well spent.”

Contact Jana Kadah at [email protected] or @Jana_Kadah on Twitter.

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