Sheriff’s Body Cam Policy Backed by ACLU

A Riverside County sheriff’s policy that bars deputies from viewing their body camera videos immediately after a “critical incident” is supported by the ACLU, a lieutenant said Friday.

“Law enforcement agencies do not often seem in agreement with the ACLU on a variety of topics,” said sheriff’s Lt. David Teets. “However, all recognize that a fundamental role of law enforcement agencies is to maintain legitimacy and credibility with the public we serve.”

The sheriff’s department released the ACLU of Southern California’s full- length letter, dated July 15, lauding Sheriff Stan Sniff for his no-view policy, which applies to any deputy with a body cam that records an act of deadly force, such as a deputy-involved shooting.

“It is the ACLU of SoCal’s position that law enforcement officers involved in critical incidents or facing charges of misconduct should not be allowed to view body-camera footage of the incident in question before making a statement or writing an initial report,” according to the letter. “Letting officers preview video of an incident before giving a statement enables the contamination of important evidence and undermines the legitimacy of internal investigations, thus compromising the public’s trust in the law enforcement agency as a whole.”

The Riverside Sheriffs’ Association, which represents rank-and-file deputies and District Attorney’s Office investigators, filed a lawsuit in January challenging use of the cameras.

According to the plaintiffs, the clip-on video recorders themselves are not a problem, but the steps taken to put them on deputies amounted to a unilateral change in working conditions, which require negotiation.

A hearing in that case is set for Oct. 23 at the Riverside Historic Courthouse.

According to Teets, deputies are free to refer to their body cam videos when trying to corroborate details of a traffic stop, arrest or any other encounter that requires filling out a routine report. However, so-called critical incident recordings must be turned over to detectives for analysis before the deputies can see them — and before they’re questioned about the incident, Teets said.

“In the event of a critical incident, the need to objectively investigate the deputies’ actions is absolutely paramount,” he said. “Viewing of video … by the involved deputy can and does occur — after the initial statement is provided. Not doing so subjects the department and every involved (deputy) to allegations that their reports or statements were ‘coached’ by first reviewing the video or videos, rather than articulating their own perception of how the incident occurred.”

Sniff said the policy protects the public’s interest and “the interests of the sheriff’s department and our deputies.”

“This is especially critical in the context recently of the national discussions on police credibility, transparency and accountability of our law enforcement agencies to the very communities we serve,” the sheriff said.

“I am very pleased that the ACLU of Southern California and the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department have found common ground on this critical portion of our body-worn camera policy already in actual practice, and we are gratified for that support,” he added.

The sheriff in March initiated a six-month program to test the effectiveness of body-worn cameras in the field, deploying the shirt-mounted devices with deputies in Jurupa Valley. Sniff told the Board of Supervisors last fall that body cams have been in use by personnel for some time, but not under a uniform policy.