Delayed deployment

Some Chico police officers still patrolling without body cameras

Chico police sergeants, including Target Team commander Scott Zuschin, go on patrol without body cameras.

Chico police sergeants, including Target Team commander Scott Zuschin, go on patrol without body cameras.

CN&R file photo

Four months after Chico Police Chief Mike O’Brien announced the department’s long-delayed deployment of body-mounted cameras, most—but not all—officers are wearing the devices while patrolling the streets of Chico.

O’Brien confirmed last week (July 20) that the department lacks enough cameras to outfit every patrol member, leaving 10 officers, including sergeants and all five members of the Target Team, without recording equipment. O’Brien cited funding, data storage and software issues as reasons why officers remain unequipped, echoing explanations department officials have given since 2014, despite having allocated more than $200,000 in grant money toward implementing the cameras.

The cameras have played pivotal roles in the two most widely publicized officer-involved shootings in Butte County in recent years. Dash- and body-cam footage helped convict former Paradise Police Officer Patrick Feaster of involuntary manslaughter for the 2015 shooting death of Andrew Thomas, and the lack of such footage has contributed to lingering questions regarding the killing of 25-year-old Desmond Phillips by Chico police officers in March.

Phillips’ father, David, witnessed his son’s shooting and disagrees with many of the details in the Butte County Officer Involved Shooting/Critical Incident Protocol Team’s final report on the incident. Asked about body cams last Friday (July 21), David said that if footage existed, it would prove his version of events and the officers would not have been exonerated.

“There should be a law that all police officers wear cameras and that they’re recording 24/7,” he said. “Otherwise, you have police claiming they were conveniently turned off at the time or that there are other problems. It’s the only way to hold them accountable.”

On the scene at Sunday’s officer-involved shooting (see “Another fatal encounter,” Downstroke), nine officers were equipped with body cams. The two sergeants, including the one who killed the suspect, were not.

Body cams became a hot topic nationally following a number of high-profile police shootings in 2014. In May 2015, Chico PD told the Chico Enterprise-Record of a plan to equip every officer with a camera by that summer. The department finally purchased 60 cameras in March 2016 with $50,000 in grant money from the Department of Homeland Security, but the cameras remained shelved for a full year due to software and data storage costs, which O’Brien estimated run $50,000 to $60,000 annually.

“The cameras aren’t cheap, but the true expense is in the data storage plan and the system to support the data,” O’Brien said.

The department eventually used $180,000 in funding from Assembly Bill 109 (commonly known as the Public Safety Realignment Act) to cover several years of data storage costs, O’Brien said, but a planned rollout this spring was delayed at least a month due to problems with transferring data to the District Attorney’s Office.

That glitch was given as the reason no video footage exists of the March 17 shooting death of Phillips, who was suffering a mental health crisis when he was shot by Chico police officers. At an April 3 public forum regarding that incident, O’Brien announced cameras had been deployed April 1. There was no mention that not all officers would be equipped with them.

Last week, O’Brien said that, in addition to the cost of 10 additional cameras and data storage, the current software infrastructure would need to be upgraded to handle the added hardware; he was unable to provide numbers but said the cost was “not insignificant.”

O’Brien said that at its busiest, the department has about 21 officers in the field, but the cameras can’t be shared because the operating system is designed for each officer to have his or her own camera.

“We didn’t want there to be any challenges related to people saying, ‘Is this your camera or my camera?’” he said, noting the system also ensures the integrity of data collected. “At the end of their shift, [officers] put it back in a docking bay that recharges it and downloads all the data automatically, which goes straight to the cloud. Officers can input identifiers like case numbers, but they’re not able to alter the data or imaging at all.”

Members of the department’s Target Team walk a beat through downtown and Lower Bidwell Park, are charged with addressing “quality-of-life” issues often associated with members of Chico’s homeless population and regularly interact with the public. As to why that unit is yet to be equipped with cameras, O’Brien said, “Uniformed patrol staff respond to about 200 calls for service each day, more than anyone else. Our Target Team is very active, too, but it seemed logical to put those cameras with our uniformed patrol officers.”

O’Brien said getting the needed cameras is a priority for his department and that he is “looking at every option I can find to make that happen.” However, the department’s 2017-18 budget proposal approved June 6 by the City Council did not include camera costs, though it did include funding for three new officers.

“I’d like to stave [camera costs] off from being a budget item for a couple years, if possible,” O’Brien said. “My intent is to try to keep that from impacting the general fund.”

O’Brien said rollout of the existing cameras has gone smoothly.

“I think the officers have really appreciated having these cameras,” he said. “A few years ago, they might have been a little skeptical, but I don’t think that’s the case anymore. I think they welcome the additional piece of evidence.”

District Attorney Mike Ramsey said camera footage from Chico police already has aided his office in making convictions.

“Of course,” he said, “there have already been guilty pleas to cases since the implementation date of April 1, as defense attorneys get the videos as part of the discovery we forward to them, and this is powerful evidence to their clients that the client’s drug/alcohol impaired memory is not the gospel truth.”