The Santa Monica Police Department is getting new body-worn cameras because the cameras officers are currently wearing have proved unreliable and faulty.
An unspecified amount of data recorded by the body-worn and in-car cameras, some of which do not work, has been lost according to a report given to the City Council. The City of Santa Monica purchased the cameras in mid-2017 for about $235,000 from WatchGuard and will receive a $200,000 refund.
“The system originally purchased by SMPD has been plagued with faulty equipment and technical failures,” City staff said.
Despite the system’s malfunctions, a 2017 survey showed both SMPD officers and the public strongly support the use of body-worn cameras because they improve trust between police and civilians and provide an accurate account of interactions between the two. The department will continue using WatchGuard’s system until it finalizes the purchase of the new cameras, said public information officer Saul Rodriguez.
The City will spend about $2 million on 325 body-worn cameras, 75 in-car cameras and a data storage system over the next five years, a little more than $400,000 per year. That figure includes a 10 percent contingency for the purchase of more cameras as needed.
The cameras will come from Axon Enterprises, which contracts with more than half the police departments in the United States. The company formerly known as Taser International invented the Taser and renamed itself Axon in mid-2017 as its law enforcement camera business boomed among greater demands for police accountability.
“We feel (Axon) has better software … and the actual device will be more durable,” Rodriguez said. “It also seems to be more user-friendly.”
Every Los Angeles Police Department officer wears an Axon camera that automatically uploads the footage it collects to Evidence.com, Axon’s cloud storage platform. LAPD purchased the system in June 2016 and the Los Angeles Police Commission decided almost two years later to direct the department to release within 45 days any videos of officer-involved shootings or force that results in a suspect going to the hospital.
While Santa Monica has no such policy, SMPD released stills from body-worn and in-car camera footage of an officer-involved shooting in August 2017. In that incident, an officer shot a homicide suspect who had fired multiple times at him and his partner.
City staff said footage has so far been used in criminal investigations, internal investigations of alleged misconduct and has helped SMPD prove and enforce traffic violations. Officers have also interacted with footage while in the field.
Dan Simon, a USC law professor who studies body-worn cameras, said technological malfunctions are to be expected with new technology.
“The general impression is that body cameras are serving a great function for policing, police units and the public,” he said. “As you can expect, with such technological innovation, that’s not always going to happen smoothly or immediately.”
Simon said he commends SMPD for addressing the issues the WatchGuard system created and moving forward with new cameras.
“Since police departments are left to their own devices, some are going to land on better or worse systems,” he said. “I don’t see that as a long-term problem – just growing pains.”