Cotati, Sebastopol adopt the use of officer body cameras

  • The on-body video cameras worn by Cotati Police provide a 130-degree view and a 12-hour video buffer. (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)

If you are stopped by a police officer in Cotati, the event will likely be captured on a video camera worn on the officer's shirt.

The city's 10 police officers now carry the pager-sized cameras, joining law enforcement agencies around the world that are rapidly adopting the devices to reduce complaints and record valuable information.

Santa Rosa police officers are testing models, with about 15 cameras now on the street. The Sonoma County Sheriff's Office expects to start a pilot program next year with cameras on 11 patrol deputies and two jail officers.

Whether such a camera would have been helpful in the aftermath of the recent fatal shooting of a 13-year-old Santa Rosa boy by a sheriff's deputy is unclear.

"It's hard to speculate what impact it would have had on us," said Assistant Sheriff Lorenzo Due?s.

Currently, deputies do not wear video cameras or have them on patrol cars. But the presence of such a camera might have provided answers to at least some questions swirling in the community over the Oct. 22 death of Andy Lopez, which has sparked two weeks of protests and spawned a federal civil rights lawsuit by the teen's family.

"I don't know if any type of camera, even with audio, could possibly reflect what an officer was feeling when such an incident occurs, but it surely would establish if his actions were objectively reasonable under the circumstances to show sustained fear of death and/or great bodily injury to himself or others," county Public Defender Kathleen Pozzi said in a statement.

Lopez was walking through a southwest Santa Rosa neighborhood carrying an airsoft BB gun resembling an AK-47 assault rifle when he was shot seven times. Deputy Erick Gelhaus told police investigators he ordered Lopez to drop the gun, then fired when the teen turned toward the deputy and his partner, raising the barrel of the BB gun.

Gelhaus said he mistook the airsoft gun for a real assault weapon and feared for the safety of himself, his partner and the neighborhood. Law enforcement protocol allows for officers to shoot when they perceive a threat to their lives. The shooting remains under investigation by Santa Rosa police and the Sonoma County District Attorney's Office.

Pozzi and ACLU officials say the idea of police departments acquiring chest-worn cameras sounds promising, depending on how the video recordings are used.

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