George Boardman: Isn’t it time for the Sheriff’s Office to start using body cameras? |

George Boardman: Isn’t it time for the Sheriff’s Office to start using body cameras?

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Residents of Nevada County say they want more transparency from public agencies, but the willingness of these bodies to shine more light on their activities has been mixed at best.

The Board of Supervisors and the Grass Valley and Nevada City councils provide more information and access than most people probably want, but then there’s the Nevada Irrigation District and the Nevada County Fair Board.

Law enforcement is under more pressure than anybody to be transparent about its activities, and the Grass Valley and Truckee police departments have responded by outfitting their officers with body cameras.

But the largest law enforcement agency in the county — the Sheriff’s Office — has resisted following suit. Isn’t it about time the department becomes more transparent about its activities in an era when “trust us” doesn’t work anymore?

That’s a topic worth discussing Thursday when sheriff candidates Captain Shannon Moon and Lieutenant Bill Smethers square off at the Rood Center in a candidate forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters. Festivities begin at 7 p.m.

Moon supports the idea of body cameras, giving the technology a positive spin on her campaign web page: “Equipping our deputies with body worn cameras will protect the officers, the public, and the trust and communication that make a community thrive.

“Residents overwhelmingly appreciate the services our Sheriff’s Office provides: Open communication and emerging technologies will help show the community the good work our deputies do every day.”

That’s a reiteration of the position she took at a candidate forum in March. Smethers questioned then where he would get the money to purchase the cameras, but now supports their use.

Smethers has the endorsement of retiring Sheriff Keith Royal, who rejected the idea of body cameras two years ago when the county Civil Grand Jury decided cameras should be used by deputies, and that the Board of Supervisors should appropriate funds. Royal cited the cost involved in equipping his deputies with body cameras, the lack of state guidelines for storing of videos captured by the cameras, and the general absence of complaints about his deputies’ behavior.

“We feel it prudent to wait for state guidelines, and analyze the experience of similar law enforcement agencies regarding the benefits and drawbacks associated with the use of body cameras before we make this a budget priority,” Royal wrote in a letter responding to the grand jury report.

Royal made his comments at a meeting of the supervisors, which then voted 4-1 to reject the grand jury recommendation. The only no vote was cast by Supervisor Richard Anderson, whose district includes Truckee.

Anderson said Truckee’s police have seen reduced investigation time and cut their risk of litigation since they began using body cameras. “This is one way to remove that distrust,” he said. “I do support a transition to body cameras at some time.”

Enough law enforcement agencies have been using body cameras long enough to suggest Truckee’s experience is not unique. “Prior to 2014, there were probably only a dozen departments using cameras,” said Michael White, a professor of criminology and criminal justice at Arizona State University. “Now we’re talking nine or ten thousand agencies, just over half of the departments in the United States.”

White, who is a consultant to the U.S. Justice Department’s Body-Worn Camera and Implementation Program, said the technology changes behavior. He cited numerous randomized controlled studies that show a substantial or statistically significant reduction in use of force following the introduction of body cameras.

“Cameras really do change the dynamic,” said Rick Smith, CEO of Axon Enterprise, which invented the Taser and is the leading supplier of body cameras to law enforcement agencies. “Cops are a little more careful. I’ve had cops tell me it’s like an angel on their shoulder.”

The research into citizen complaints is even more definitive: Cameras clearly reduce the number of complaints from the public, including suspects who exaggerate the amount of force police use to make an arrest, and the growing number of combative prisoners.

Los Angeles police are coming around to the idea that cameras can benefit them, according to Craig Lally, president of Los Angeles Police Protective League, the union that represents the city’s rank and file. Los Angeles was the first major police force to introduce cameras in 2013.

“It’s been a game changer,” Lally said. “We get a lot of false complaints against police officers for various reasons. Some of them are excessive force. Some of them are what we call mouth beefs — that the officer swore at a person.”

Cameras have also reduced instances of “testi-lying” — officers lying under oath. “(Cameras have) given us a fuller picture of the police interactions at the time and the witness interactions at the time,” said Brendon Wood, the top public defender in Alameda County. “In the past, police have shaded evidence to comport with the narrative they want to portray. They can’t do it when it’s on video.”

The evidence is clear: While they aren’t a cure-all, body cameras increase police accountability and transparency, and engender more public trust in our law enforcement agencies. In an era when every cell phone-carrying citizen can be his own documentary producer, cameras give law enforcement the opportunity to better present their side of any controversy.

Isn’t time for the Sheriff’s Office to get with the program?

George Boardman lives at Lake of the Pines. His column is published Mondays by The Union. Write to him at

UPDATE: This story has been updated to reflect that Bill Smethers, candidate for sheriff, has stated his support of using body-worn cameras by officers.

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