<i>Editor's note: This is the second in a series of editorials on changes we believe the community should explore in the aftermath of the Oct. 22 shooting of 13-year-old Andy Lopez by a Sonoma County sheriff's deputy.</i><br>
Unlike police in Cotati and a growing number of law enforcement agencies around the country, deputies with the Sonoma County Sheriff's Office are not required to wear small cameras on their lapels or have cameras mounted on the dashboards of their patrol cars.
Even if they had been, it's unclear whether the presence of a videotape alone would have helped save the life of Andy Lopez, an 8th grader who died tragically at the hand of a sheriff's deputy while carrying a replica AK-47 to a friend's house.
But the video certainly would have provided the community with a clearer understanding of what transpired in those critical seconds between when the deputies spotted Lopez and when the youth was killed. And that alone should makes it a change worth discussing.
As Staff Writer Randi Rossmann reported on Thursday, Cotati, which has had dashboard cameras in patrol cars since 1999, is doing more than talking about it. It has become the first agency in Sonoma County to equip its entire force, 10 officers, with pager-sized cameras to be worn on uniforms. Meanwhile, about half of Sebastopol's 12 officers have been using them, although cameras there are only being provided to those officers who want them.
Research suggests that they should. A recent study involving uniform cameras in Rialto in Southern California found that not only did they result in a reduction in complaints against police officers — 88 percent during the first year — it resulted in a significant improvement in the conduct of those being confronted by police. Cops with cameras reported a 60 percent decrease in the use of force.
In some communities where body cameras are in use, police have reported citizens deciding not to file complaints after being shown video of a situation where they believed misconduct had occurred.
Given all that, it makes sense that this is the direction where more local communities are headed.
Santa Rosa police officers are testing models and have about 15 cameras now in use. Meanwhile, the Sonoma County Sheriff's Office expects to start a pilot program in 2014 with cameras on 11 patrol deputies and two jail officers.
But equipping police with cameras won't be enough to prevent conflict and ensure greater transparency. It also needs to be made clear that the film is a public document and that access to it is not at the discretion of law enforcement.
Meanwhile, clear guidelines are needed on how long the videos will be stored, who will have access to them and what the consequences will be if an officer decides to turn off his or her camera as a means of hiding their own misconduct or that of a fellow officer.
Such was the case in Oakland two years ago when a supervising officer turned off the lapel camera of a subordinate during an Occupy Oakland protest. Both the officer, who had been accused of improperly taping over his nametag, and the lieutenant were later disciplined.
Body cameras are more than a good idea. They can be an invaluable tool in establishing whether lethal force was justified in a shooting such as the one involving Andy Lopez. But it won't help anyone if the camera isn't on, or worse, if the video is kept from public view.