Sheriff Lee Baca is recommending that some deputies in violence-plagued parts of Men's Central Jail wear video cameras on their uniforms - even though a pilot program raised doubts as to whether the devices would prevent abuse of inmates.
The cameras, which would cost about $620,000, are intended to serve as a deterrent to abuse and violence, and were recommended by independent groups that have been monitoring problems with the Los Angeles County jail system.
In a recent report to the county Board of Supervisors, the Sheriff's Department noted deputies would have to manually activate the cameras during a violent incident because having the cameras run continuously during a shift is too expensive.
The resulting video includes the 30 seconds preceding the camera's activation, as well as the events following the activation.
During a pilot program from February through August, 30 cameras were deployed at Men's Central Jail and Twin Towers Correctional Facility, from manufacturers Taser and VieVU.
Many of the deputies using them said the mere presence of the cameras acted as a deterrent of bad behavior from inmates.
In some cases, however, deputies said the cameras "seemed to antagonize the inmate and/or exacerbate the situation."
About 20 percent of the testers were involved in some type of use-of-force incident during the pilot program.
But one in four deputies wearing the cameras on their lapels not turn them on during a violent incident "because the incident was highly stressful and rapidly evolving," the report said.
Peter Eliasberg, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, said it is certainly possible for deputies to forget or be rendered unable to turn on their cameras. The ACLU monitors conditions in the jails as a result of a lawsuit over abuses.
He added, however, that it is also quite possible for deputies to leave the cameras off on purpose.
"If someone is doing wrong and wants to avoid being detected, that would be a motive not to turn the cameras on," Eliasberg said.
Still, he supports using the cameras if the department penalizes deputies who fail to activate them when necessary.
"Cameras are not a magic bullet but they are helpful," Eliasberg said.
"They're not the answer to everything but they can and should be a valuable tool."
The Citizens Commission on Jail Violence included the cameras on its list of recommendations to the board in September. Supervisor Don Knabe remains unconvinced.
"On first review of this report, I would prefer to put our resources into wall-mounted cameras, a more proven and effective technology," he said in an emailed statement.
"This report illustrates the inconsistency and real-world issues with cameras worn by deputies," he added.
Another problem with the personal video recording devices was that they often could not stay attached to deputies' uniforms.
"Once a physical confrontation has started, it was the experience of many users that the PVRD would become dislodged from the person of the deputy and would fall to the floor," the report said. "At that point, the PVRD camera would be pointed in a direction (on the floor) and not capturing the unfolding event.
The cameras' durability also came into question during the pilot program.
Often, batteries could not hold a charge and video could not be viewed or downloaded.
"Within the six-month testing and evaluation time period, 40 percent of all PVRD users submitted their device for repair or replacement at least once," the report said.
Nevertheless, the department recommends buying the cameras for approximately $618,400 and distributing them to deputies assigned to "high liability" and "historically problematic" parts of Men's Central Jail, but not in other facilities.
"This technology has the potential to increase agency transparency, thereby increasing community trust and positive public perception of law enforcement," the department said in an emailed statement.
"Additionally, video evidence has the potential to increase officer professionalism and accountability, resolve citizen complaints against officers, reduce civil liability, increase efficiency in the handling of many types of cases and deter criminal activity," it added.
The cameras could be deployed within six to eight months, according to the report. During the waiting period, the department would talk to deputies' unions to address privacy concerns.
Several law enforcement agencies across the country already use the cameras or are testing them, including the BART, Brentwood (in Contra Costa County) and Oakland police departments. They are not used in any California state prisons.