When body-worn cameras start appearing on Kern County Sheriff’s deputies in the Bakersfield area early next year, they may bring positive change with them.
Federal grant money will equip 90 deputies — the full contingent serving in the metropolitan Bakersfield area — with the cameras.
Kern County law enforcement agencies have been named the most violent in the nation by a series of stories in The Guardian in 2015 and targeted for criticism by the American Civil Liberties Union just last week.
But Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood told the Kern County Board of Supervisors last week that body-worn cameras are changing things, and he had numbers for them.
The Kern County Sheriff’s Office has been rolling out the body-mounted cameras in areas of the county in small batches since 2015.
Youngblood said that where the cameras are used, the number of incidents in which excessive force is alleged have gone down dramatically.
“Body worn cameras were implemented in Wasco on March 20, 2015,” Youngblood said. “Use of force incidents significantly reduced from 50 in 2014 to 14 so far this year.”
He said the body cameras provide direct, swift evidence about the reality of a situation as well as enhancing the Sheriff’s office’s ability to train officers and fix problems in officer behavior.
“The Wasco sergeant said reviewing footage allows him to reward positive behavior, identify training issues and correct substandard performance,” Youngblood said.
And the cameras protect deputies from fraudulent claims that they used more force than necessary.
“Several of the complaints have been resolved by viewing the video with the complainant. When they saw it the complaint went away,” Youngblood said.
Cameras have also been used in the Sheriff’s central receiving jail and the Lerdo pre-trial facility.
"In (the) central receiving facility fixed cameras were installed in 2011 and 2012. Body worn cameras were deployed in 2015. Use of force investigations reduced from a high of 11 in 2013 to only one so far in 2017,” Youngblood said.
Lerdo Pre-trial cameras were installed in 2012 and 2013, he said, and internal affairs investigations reduced from 43 in 2013 to five so far this year.
Youngblood said one internal affairs officer told him the cameras are critical to investigating claims against Kern County Sheriff’s deputies.
Those investigations have traditionally taken up to six months, Youngblood said.
But now the footage from a body-worn camera can often show whether a claim is valid or bogus almost immediately.
Ultimately Youngblood said holding his deputies accountable while debunking fake claims against them results in savings for the county.
“What we’re saying is less complaints equals less lawsuits, equals less loss of money to our general fund and more transparency,” Youngblood said.
Youngblood will equip sergeants, senior deputies and deputies assigned to the unincorporated areas of metropolitan Bakersfield.
“In last three or four years body-worn cameras have become a topic of conversation for transparency. We have endeavored to go down that path but it's expensive — the storage of the data is very expensive."
The Bakersfield program will be executed with help from a U.S. Department of Justice grant.
Youngblood said his staff landed the $135,000 grant to fund half the cost of equipping the deputies that patrol unincorporated Bakersfield with the camera.
The other half of the cost will come from state prison realignment funds.
Chief Deputy Larry McCurtain said the Sheriff’s Office is currently working to finalize the paperwork on the grant and get its plans and policies for using the cameras approved by the Department of Justice.
The cameras should go online, he said, “sometime after the first of the year.”
Funds from the grant will help implement the camera program for the next two years.
“The grant is a two-year grant. After the two-year grant we’ll have associated costs tied to things like the information storage,” McCurtain said.
The Sheriff would locate another source of revenue for the program at that time.