by Dave Waddell
Police Chief Mike O’Brien — lauding the use of body-worn cameras by his patrol officers — says cameras will also soon be attached to the blue uniforms of Chico PD’s 13 sergeants.
As first reported here by ChicoSol, Chico Police Department patrol officers began sporting the body cameras last April, a couple of weeks after two policemen shot and killed Desmond Phillips, a young black man in mental crisis.
O’Brien said that after 10½ months of use, he would give the camera experience a “very favorable” evaluation.
“That is not only my perspective, but I believe the majority of officers as well,” O’Brien said. “It is an important part of policing for all involved.”
In addition to the sergeants, four members of Chico PD’s so-called Target Team also will soon wear body cameras for the first time as part of what O’Brien described as “Phase Two” of the department’s body-cam deployment.
O’Brien said grant funding he hoped would pay the $30,000 to $40,000 annually to outfit the added personnel with cameras “has been hung up unexpectedly.”
“If that continues, I will pursue other options to purchase the cameras (and) data storage,” he said.
Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey recently filed an assault charge against former Chico police Sgt. Scott Ruppel, alleging that Ruppel, 51, placed a handcuffed, seat-belted suspect in a stranglehold for 8 seconds last August. Ruppel, who retired from Chico PD in September, has pleaded not guilty to the misdemeanor charge in Butte County Superior Court.
Ruppel, three weeks before the choking incident, shot Tyler Rushing twice at close range during a July 23 struggle in a downtown bathroom. Rushing, who earlier was shot by a private security guard, died from his wounds.
Though Ruppel, as a sergeant, never wore a body camera, both the shooting and choking incidents were recorded by other officers’ cams.
Sherri Quammen of Paradise, a musician, artist and activist, said she recalls urging Chico police administrators to start using body cameras after officers killed 19-year-old Breanne Sharpe in a barrage of gunfire in 2013.
“They should have implemented the use of body cams years ago,” Quammen said. “From what I read, most police departments around the country don’t want to use body cameras for obvious reasons, but with the ones that have, complaints of excessive use of force and police misconduct have gone down something like 60 percent.”
To most effectively use body cameras in the public interest, an outside group of citizens not selected by law enforcement should be able to review unedited material from the cams, Quammen said.
Quammen said research she found shows that 28 percent of law enforcement agencies in California already have citizen oversight committees, with more than 100 such review boards nationwide.
“In my opinion, the body cameras are fairly worthless unless someone other than the police are allowed to review them as part of the investigative process,” Quammen said.
Since 1997, there have been 28 fatal law enforcement shootings in Butte County, with Ramsey prosecuting just one of the involved officers – former Paradise policeman Patrick Feaster, who killed 26-year-old Andrew Thomas in 2015. “And how they could call that involuntary manslaughter is beyond me,” Quammen remarked.
Quammen said she is working on a video project that will include interviews with up to 10 people who have been victimized by Chico police.
“I’m hoping it will become mandatory viewing for officers of the Chico Police Department so that they can see the faces and hear the stories of the people that they harmed and intimidated,” she said.
Ramsey said personnel of the Oroville, Paradise and Gridley police departments also wear body cameras, as do officers from the Butte County Sheriff’s Department and Butte College.
“I don’t believe the state agencies have yet gotten theirs,” Ramsey said. “I know they’re getting close.” Such state agencies operating in Butte County include the California Highway Patrol, the departments of Parks and Recreation and Fish and Wildlife, and Chico State.
Ramsey said video and audio from police cameras provide valuable information for both prosecutors and the public. He has noted that while the cameras provided insufficient evidence to prosecute Ruppel in the Rushing shooting, they provided sufficient evidence to prosecute Ruppel for his alleged choking of William Rowley three weeks later.
Ramsey released several videos of the Rushing shooting and said he will make public the video of the alleged Rowley choking after Ruppel’s assault charge is resolved in the courts.
“We think (body cameras are) wonderful from an evidentiary and transparency aspect,” Ramsey said. “Showing what happens, when it happens and how it happens is something that is important to the public and to our juries.”
O’Brien, even before he became police chief in mid-2015, was involved administratively in the testing and selection of body cameras for Chico PD. Still, 2016 came and went without the cameras being put into operation, with O’Brien blaming the delay on problems transmitting data to the district attorney’s office, as reported here by ChicoSol.
However, just two weeks after Phillips was shot 11 times on March 17, 2017, in his own living room by two young officers, O’Brien disclosed that the cameras were being used by patrol officers.
The camera is worn on the officer’s chest and is supposed to be turned on in any enforcement action. No one is able to edit the video before it is sent to prosecutors, O’Brien said.
Dave Waddell is news director at ChicoSol.