A June 2015 confrontation on a rural Petaluma road between a Sonoma County deputy and a female teenager was caught on the officer’s body-worn video. Video footage of deputy Marcus Holton wrestling Gabbi Lemos to the ground was released to the public and used as evidence in an eventually unsuccessful claim of alleged use of excessive force filed against the county by the Lemos family, represented by attorney Izaak Schwaiger.
Lemos and her mother were convicted in August of resisting arrest. “This case is an example of the potential usefulness of body-worn cameras,” said Jill Ravitch, the county’s district attorney.
The Business Journal interviewed Ravitch along with Steve Freitas, the county’s sheriff, who had to equip his police force with the cameras and figure out how to store and access video data for use by courts, police and criminal attorneys.
The technology has significantly altered the profession of criminal defense, according to several local attorneys.
“If it’s recorded, there’s no dispute about what somebody said,” according to Chris Andrian, who has handled many high-profile criminal cases in the county. “There’s no mystery. Nobody is speculating,” he said.
Camera footage doesn’t necessarily help clients, but defense attorneys mostly still welcome the additional evidence.
“They’re a good thing, even if it makes the evidence more solid against my client,” said Amy Chapman, a criminal-defense attorney based in Santa Rosa.
By the time the Business Journal talked with Sheriff Freitas in May, the department had collected and stored in the cloud nearly 9 terabytes (a terabyte is 1,000 gigabytes) of video evidence in a $1.1 million project that started in early 2015. The collection rate is about a terabyte a month, and each deputy docks his or her camera in a charging unit that also grabs the data and sends it to the cloud.
“The elephant in the room is data management,” said Freitas, whose department has a budget of $160 million with nearly 700 paid staff and 250 volunteers. “That’s eventually going to wear us down. We are going to need more staff or we’re going to have to scale back.” His staff members routinely respond to requests by attorneys for video-camera footage.
“The cameras have been very beneficial,” Freitas said, “in the world of criminal court. There’s a lot of scrutiny of law enforcement.”
In 2017 and beyond, that scrutiny is likely to increase and management of the video evidence will become an intrinsic part of police work for the county and each city that adopts body-worn cameras for its officers.
Top stories of 2016
No. 9: Law enforcement use of force has become a hot-button conversation nationwide, and that was brought home by the Andy Lopez and Gabbi Lemos cases. Body-worn cameras were adopted after the Lopez case, and the cams played a big role in the Lemos case.