Kern County Supervisors agreed last week to invest $5.2 million to improve local law enforcement.
The money will be used to equip sheriff’s deputies across the department with body cameras, which is intended to protect both Kern County residents and deputies.
Shining a light on deputy actions while patrolling Kern County will improve accountability, as well as protect deputies from unwarranted accusations of wrongdoing.
“From our viewpoint, we find them beneficial to have them deployed out in the field, where they can actually document the interactions between our deputies and the citizens they serve,” Tim Caughron, president of the Kern Law Enforcement Association, told The Californian.
Local law enforcement reform advocates say requiring deputies to wear body cameras is long overdue.
The most recent high-profile national case of police wrongdoing revealed by a video was the brutal death of George Floyd last year in Minnesota. The Minneapolis police officer who knelt on Floyd’s neck for more than 9 minutes until Floyd died was later convicted of murder.
David Cohn, managing partner at the Bakersfield law firm of Chain Cohn Stiles, doubts that the George Floyd case would have become the focus of national outrage, nor would have ended in the officer’s conviction, without the gruesome video footage.
“So, I think that any kind of evidence or camera footage is invaluable,” Cohn told The Californian.
Jesse Rodriguez, whose cousin, James De La Rosa, was killed in a 2014 officer-involved shooting, predicted the sheriff’s expanded use of body cameras will “shed a light on a lot of stuff.”
While law enforcement agencies across the nation long have been equipping officers with body cameras, the KCSO adopted the program only in 2015. Use initially was limited to deputies patrolling in metropolitan Bakersfield, Wasco and those assigned special duty, including in the county jail facilities.
The Bakersfield Police Department only started outfitting its officers with body cameras in 2019. In May, the BPD expanded its contract to outfit officers departmentwide.
Discussing his participation in an earlier Bakersfield Police Department one-year pilot program that involved limited use of body cameras, BPD Lt. Nathan McCauley told The Californian that it felt good for him to have an extra layer of protection. “There’s no misconstruing of what went on.”
In 2017, Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood acknowledged his department’s use of body cameras had resulted in a dramatic decrease in excessive force complaints against his deputies and in fewer lawsuits.
Both the Kern County Sheriff’s Office and the Bakersfield Police Department have been the focus of years-long civil rights investigations by the California Department of Justice.
Last December, Youngblood entered into an agreement with the state to settle charges that his deputies were violating civil rights of people. Settlement of a similar case against the Bakersfield Police Department is pending.
Although expanded use of body cameras by sheriff’s deputies was not among the more than a dozen reforms demanded by the county’s settlement agreement, the state Department of Justice acknowledged in court documents that the KCSO’S camera use reflected favorably on the law enforcement agency’s leadership.
Many of the reforms required by the settlement agreement focus on transparency and the department’s efforts to reassure residents that laws are being fairly and legally enforced.
Outside law enforcement experts have been appointed to monitor the progress made in reforming KCSO policies, procedures and treatment of the public over the next five years. Reports of progress made and continuing problems will be made public.
The county’s $5.2 million contract with Axon Enterprise will supply field deputies with body cameras and Tasers for a five-year period beginning in July. The contract also gives the KCSO storage on evidence.com, a website run by Axon.
The wearing of body cameras is an important component in providing public accountability and reassuring residents that their encounters with local law enforcement will be both effective and safe.