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Santa Rosa Police officers risk raising suspicions by muting body cameras

Auditor's Report

To read the full report,

click here.

Santa Rosa police officers risk eliminating critical context to law enforcement activities when they mute their body cameras during service calls, the city’s independent police auditor said in an otherwise positive review of city police operations in 2017.

Santa Rosa City Council is expected to discuss the auditor’s report - Palo Alto attorney Bob Aaronson’s second as city police auditor - today. Other key items in his report dealt with how police officers are dealing with the city’s homeless problem and statistics about complaints against officers and how such allegations were handled.

“My preference is to have officers record everything, both audio and video, from the moment they step out of their vehicle until the moment they’ve completed their role in handling the call,” Aaronson said of body cameras in his report. “We’re not just trying to narrowly analyze whether a use of force was sanctioned, but to examine in every aspect how a call for service was managed.”

City Council approved a $100,000 contract for Aaronson in April 2017. He was first hired to conduct an independent audit of the city police department in 2016. The outside auditor position was created amid a public call for more police oversight and accountability after the 2013 shooting of Andy Lopez, a Santa Rosa middle-schooler who was shot and killed by a Sonoma County sheriff’s deputy who thought the boy’s toy gun was real.

The use of body cameras by city police has helped decrease the number of complaints and speed up their resolution, according to the report. The auditor reviewed 688 body camera videos as part of his yearlong study of the city police operations and said the technology has added “enormous value,” though there have been some challenges.

Santa Rosa decided last year to change its body camera vendor after discovering some videos simply vanished instead of being stored in a database. The new system doesn’t appear to have that problem, but the mute function on the new cameras has given Aaronson cause for concern.

Aaronson, who could not be reached for comment Monday, would prefer officers record the entirety of their activity on a call for service, including conversations with supervisors. The audio from these on-scene briefings can be critical to understand how and why officers acted as they did during a call for service, he said in his report.

Aaronson said officers risk raising suspicions by muting their body cameras after using force or after they arrest someone. For example, he wrote, officers engaging in post-arrest joking may not be amusing themselves at the expense of the arrestee, but officers who have muted their cameras could “look terrible” if the recording lacks audio that could provide context.

“I worry that the ‘revealing tactics’ reason for muting cameras is overused, to say the least,” Aaronson wrote. “In my experience, the vast majority of communication at the scene is not regarding secret tactics but simple supervision and incident management.”

Police Chief Hank Schreeder said Monday department policy allows officers to mute conversations when discussing medical or tactical issues with their supervisors. However, he said Santa Rosa police officials had been reviewing officers’ ability to mute their interactions and expects body camera recording to expand in the future as police culture evolves.

“It’s certainly something that we’re looking at, as an industry and not just in Santa Rosa,” Schreeder said, noting that the volume of use-of-force incidents and complaints dropped from 2016 to 2017 and that the footage had helped resolve complaints much faster.

Body camera footage also helped Aaronson examine interactions between Santa Rosa police officers and homeless people. Complaints about Santa Rosa Police Department enforcement against homeless people are routine, and dealing with them is the type of policing officers on patrol complain about most, his report said.

Homeless encampments are illegal in Santa Rosa and Sonoma County, and local law enforcement officers have evicted residents of several makeshift campsites over the past year. But “turfing,” or moving homeless people from place to place by breaking up camps, can damage officer morale, according to the report, because police know these enforcement actions won’t solve the homelessness problem and may make life even tougher for transients.

The police chief said 10 to 12 percent of Santa Rosa police’s calls for service are related to a homeless issue. He said homelessness is a community challenge that negatively affects members of the police department.

“There are very few tools that police officers have to apply to the problem of homelessness,” he said.

Aaronson’s report didn’t blame Santa Rosa’s police officers or state and local officials who crafted laws and ordinances related to homelessness for the growing problem in the city. But he said, “what we have done thus far to address the challenge of homelessness has not made an appreciable dent in the problem.”

Meanwhile, the auditor’s report said 21 of 33 neglect-of-duty complaints and 9 of 25 rudeness complaints against Santa Rosa officers in 2017 were sustained and that 16 of 18 internally initiated complaints were sustained. There were four instances in his audit in which Aaronson disagreed with the city police department’s findings for one of the 76 complaints he reviewed last year. However, he said the disagreements were not “of any great magnitude.”

You can reach Staff Writer Will Schmitt at 707-521-5207 or will.schmitt@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @wsreports.

Auditor's Report

To read the full report,

click here.

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