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Full deployment of body cameras to all Kern County deputies awaits approval from supervisors

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In this file photo, a Kern County Sheriff's deputy wears a body camera during a press conference in Wasco.

All Kern County sheriff’s deputies could soon be equipped with body cameras for the first time.

Currently, only deputies patrolling the metro Bakersfield area and Wasco, along with deputies in the Electronic Monitoring Program, have body cams. But that could soon change if the Board of Supervisors approves a contract with Axon Enterprise on Tuesday.

The roughly $5.2 million contract will supply the Sheriff’s Office with body cameras and Tasers for a five-year period beginning in July. KCSO is pursuing the contract following its agreement with the California Department of Justice. In December, KCSO agreed to undertake about a dozen reforms following allegations of civil rights violations.

Although the expansion of body cameras was not one of the reforms stipulated under the agreement, the Justice Department acknowledged in court documents KCSO’s implementation of body cameras reflected favorably on the law enforcement agency’s leadership.

For some local residents, the widespread use of body cameras has been a long time coming.

“It’s something that should have been in place many years ago,” said Jesse Rodriguez, whose cousin James De La Rosa was killed in an officer-involved shooting in 2014. “I’ve spoken to community members whose rights have been violated, and if there’s no body cam footage, there’s nothing they can use in their defense. It’s all hearsay. I know it’s going to shed a light on a lot of stuff.”

In high-profile events such as officer-involved shootings, or situations where force is used, body cameras have proven to be important resources.

“It’s the same argument and issue that has come up in the George Floyd case. You have to ask yourself, and it’s been asked, would George Floyd have gotten where it did without that camera footage, maybe not?” David Cohn, managing partner at Chain Cohn Stiles, said in a phone interview. “So I think that any kind of evidence or camera footage is invaluable.”

Body cameras are a relatively new phenomenon in Kern County. KCSO first outfitted some of its detention deputies with body cameras in 2015. In 2016, Wasco voted to pay for a body camera program for deputies assigned to the city. KCSO expanded body cameras to deputies patrolling metro Bakersfield using a federal grant in 2018. The Bakersfield Police Department only began outfitting its officers with body cams in 2019.

In 2017, Sheriff Donny Youngblood said body cameras in Wasco and county jail facilities led to a dramatic decrease in excessive force complaints, which resulted in fewer lawsuits. KCSO spokeswoman Danielle Kernkamp said on Monday neither Youngblood nor other staff were available to comment Monday about the new contract.

Tim Caughron, president of the Kern Law Enforcement Association, said body cams have helped deputies.

“From our viewpoint, we find them beneficial to have them deployed out in the field where they can actually document the interaction between our deputies and the citizens they serve,” he said. “They actually show that our deputies are doing a professional job when they are out dealing with the public, and it helps to capture the actual events that are happening, which sometimes includes the people that we deal with acting inappropriate.”

In the first year of the program, KCSO hopes to deploy 325 body cameras in the field. The contract also gives the Sheriff’s Office unlimited storage on evidence.com, a website run by Axon.

You can reach Sam Morgen at 661-395-7415. You may also follow him on Twitter @smorgenTBC.