Lights, BodyCamera, Action

Some deputies have started using the long-awaited cameras on patrol shifts at 5 stations - Century, West Hollywood, Lancaster, Lakewood, and Industry.

After a full day of training, the soft roll-out began Friday, October 2nd. I was the only reporter allowed to ride along to watch how deputies were acclimating to the new gadgets.

My first shift began Saturday, October 3rd at 8:00 AM. I met Deputy John Avalos at the Century Station in Lynwood. Avalos is a training deputy who is used to having a rookie deputy in the passenger seat, not a reporter. This would be Avalos’ first media ride-along.

As we drove through Lynwood Avalos explained that he teaches deputies to act as though they’re always being recorded so the idea of wearing a camera doesn’t bother him at all. He says the biggest challenge is remembering to turn on the camera and adding the report number to each video file after each call. He says he’s glad to have the cameras because the public can finally see the deputies point of view without spin from the media.

The 5-year contract is expected to cost 25 million dollars and the goal is to provide cameras to more than 5,000 deputies in the next 18 months.

Avalos says while the cameras are a great idea it’s not the panacea everyone makes it out to be. After all, the camera can only see one view from chest height. The program also includes a new Galaxy smartphone for every deputy with a body cam. The smartphone is designed to pair with the bodycam and can see the camera’s point of view, review each call, and add case numbers and reference information.

The bodycam is always recording video in :60 second increments. Every :60 seconds the recording, without audio, is refreshed. When a deputy activates the camera, the previous :60 seconds are saved and the video with audio begins to record immediately.

During my shift with Deputy Avalos we provided back up for a few deputies on other calls. One of the calls involved a man who appeared to have mental issues and had called 911 to report he was being followed. Avalos says the new cameras will help document mental health calls because of accusations that law enforcement mistreats those struggling with mental health issues.

While leaving from another call, I happen to hear a woman who cried out for help from a sidewalk. We did a U-turn and stopped in front of the woman’s apartment complex. The woman was visibly upset and crying. She says the father of her children had threatened to kidnap the children and take them to Mexico. Avalos calmly asks the woman for more information. Another deputy writes up a criminal threats report and we head back to the station – we were at the end of the shift. I got a bite to eat, changed the batteries in my recorders and took a nap in my newstruck – I had to rest up for the night shift.

It was a little before 7 PM and I went back over to the Century station where I met the Watch Commander for the shift, Lt. Marc Mrakich. He paired me up with Training Deputy Brian Hoist. Hoist is right out of ‘central casting’, young, fit, all-American kid next door. I could tell immediately how much pride he has in his work. I wired up Deputy Hoist and began recording. The idea is to record the entire 8+ hour shift, good and bad.

We pulled out of the station and drove along Imperial Highway. We began chatting about bodycams, but only after Hoist gave me instructions on what to do if we took gunfire and he became incapacitated. He said the cameras are a great thing but also makes it clear the camera won’t solve all the public’s perceptions of law enforcement. He says he was trained to perform his duties as if he were always being recorded and adds he has always instructed his trainees to act the same.

As we continue our patrol a white Mustang pulls up alongside us and aggressively cuts in front of us, we notice his muffler is pretty loud. Hoist says the combination of the loud muffler and bad driving is enough to prompt a traffic stop. The car turns left, and we follow – Hoist turns on the red/blue lights and the car pulls over – Hoist activates his bodycam. After we stop, Hoist cautiously approaches. I get out of the passenger side and stand behind the open door. Within a few moments, Hoist pulls out his gun and holds it to his side. I quickly find out the driver has an unregistered handgun under his front seat. Hoist calls for backup and units arrive within seconds.

The Mustang driver and his two passengers did not have valid driver licenses – all three were handcuffed and detained in other patrol vehicles. After deputies checked their identities and questioned them, the two passengers were allowed to leave. The driver was booked and taken to a detention center.

We continue on patrol and eventually stop for what would be Deputy Hoist’s lunch break - nothing like a double-double, fries and a diet coke at midnight. While waiting for our food we get a call. We drop everything and run to the car. When we got to the scene it was handled so we went back to get our food and finish eating on the truck lid of the old Crown Vic – and, let me tell you…I have now seen firsthand the best of what the sheriff’s department has and the worst. Our patrol car’s passenger door was so messed up it wouldn’t close all the way.

One of our calls came from a man who hadn’t heard from his brother for a couple days and wanted us to check on his well-being. We had just searched the home to find the brother wasn’t there when out of nowhere, we were called to assist units dealing with a possible chase involving a weapon. When we arrive, we were directed to an area where someone in the vehicle allegedly tossed a weapon out of a window. Come to find out, the weapon was a BB gun. This is concerning to deputies because of how much it resembles an actual handgun.

We head back out to the streets when all of the sudden we hear a series of rapid-fire gunshots. Immediately, we go stealth…Hoist turns off the headlights, turns down the radio and closes the bright laptop screen. As we inch along the tree-lined street, we hear another volley of gunshots and we’re trying to figure out where they came from. We stop to ask some residents who also heard the gunfire, but they weren’t sure. As we turn down another street, we see a white SUV with blacked out windows drive by, a sheriff’s patrol car close behind. We fall into line and pull over the SUV.

Multiple units show up and deputies approach with caution. I walk to the side of the scene and watch as Hoist approaches. A deputy opens the rear passenger door where a man was sitting. Hoist walks over to him and asks him some questions. A deputy pats down the man and finds a loaded magazine in the man’s front pocket. Hoist shines his flashlight inside the SUV and to the floorboard where he discovers two semi-automatic handguns and two extended magazines. The man is handcuffed and taken to another patrol vehicle.

During the search of the man, deputies find another loaded magazine in the man’s back pocket.

The man refuses to answer questions but asks for the person in charge. Hoist tells the man he’s in charge – the man says he was attending a family function, but then the man stops talking and never speaks again until he’s at the holding cell.

While all of this is going on deputies were speaking with a woman who had been driving the SUV. When deputies first asked her to get out of the vehicle, she said, “The F&^$K I am”. Hoist asked her to calm down and explained the SUV had weapons inside and not to make any sudden movements. She got out, was handcuffed, but wasn’t searched until a female deputy arrived on scene.

Hoist explains when a female needs to be searched they call for a female deputy. But sometimes it can take a long time because they could be on the opposite side of the coverage area or tied up with another call.

I asked Hoist if the bodycam would help in a case like this. He explained the camera sees only a singular point of view and if he’s behind the female to handcuff her or search her the camera would only show the middle of her back, leaving the possibility the woman could claim she was touched inappropriately on her front or beneath the camera’s view. In fact, he points out that if a male deputy transports a female, the deputy must call in his mileage and time when he leaves the scene and when he arrives at the station.

While waiting for the female deputy to arrive a deputy walks over to where we were standing – he was holding a sock…inside, a small revolver. Apparently, the woman who was just detained had it on her and it fell onto the floorboard of the patrol vehicle. So, now Hoist takes out the smartphone provided by the bodycam company so he can review the video of the woman – he’s checking to see if there was any sign of where it could have been.

The woman claims the gun isn’t hers, but deputies cannot search her further until the female deputy arrives. The woman also claims she didn’t know about the other weapons in the SUV she was driving.

Deputy Hoist checks the smartphone that’s linked to his bodycam. He says this is a way for deputies to review incidents in the field in real time to catch something they missed or further record evidence. The smartphone is in view only mode and plays back video from the bodycam but cannot be altered by the deputy. Any photos and video recorded on the smartphone are sync’d with the bodycam. All the files are uploaded automatically at the end of the shift via a dock which is located in a secure room at the station. Every entry and exit are recorded through the swipe of a deputy’s ID, as well as surveillance cameras inside and outside the room. A special team of digital techs are the only people permitted to work with the video.

The bodycam program is long overdue at the LA County Sheriff’s Department. All the deputies I have spoken with are excited to have them but are a bit nervous at the same time. I was told there is a 90-day grace period to allow for mistakes like forgetting to turn on the camera. After the 90 days, it’s possible a deputy could get disciplined for not adhering to the new camera policies.

The entire experience was very eye-opening and I’m sure the camera program will help give the public a better perspective on how calls are handled.

Learn about the program via the department’s website:

Photos: Steve Gregory

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