RICHMOND -- A motorcyclist sped down Cutting Boulevard, then crashed into a sedan turning left from 29th Street. The rider flew over the handlebars and came to rest more than 40 feet away.

Richmond police Officer Phillip Sanchez arrived on scene to discover the man immobile, suffering massive injuries.

Moments earlier, Sanchez had switched on his body camera, as required by department protocol.

"You could see the motorcyclist still on the ground with ... debris all over the place and people in the street trying to treat him," Sanchez said the day after the Oct. 9 crash, helped by the footage his camera recorded. "It was interesting to replay it and see how (the camera) captured the entire event from the beginning. It was useful to go back and look at some of that."

Richmond Police Officer Phillip Sanchez uses his iPod Touch to review footage of a traffic stop recorded on his body camera, which Richmond Police are
Richmond Police Officer Phillip Sanchez uses his iPod Touch to review footage of a traffic stop recorded on his body camera, which Richmond Police are trying out on a trial basis. Officers review footage while filing incident reports. (Courtesy of Kevin N. Hume)

Earlier this month, four Richmond police officers began using body cameras while out on patrol. Pending the outcome of the test trial, Richmond could follow the lead of other Bay Area law enforcement agencies, including Oakland and San Francisco, in requiring cameras be worn by all its patrol officers.

The department is testing three models to see which might be the best for wider usage among its officers. One is a set of glasses with a small camera mounted to the frame; another mounts to the officer's uniform shoulder strap; the last model, and the one Sanchez uses, is a square unit with a wide-angle fish-eye lens that clips to the officer's uniform belt or shirt.

The devices are manufactured by Taser International and costs $299, paid out of the department's general fund. The device comes with an iPod Touch for reviewing captured video, which also displays a live view from the camera.

The camera films in constant 30-second loops when in standby mode. When the officer arrives to a call, he hits record. The camera begins recording video from the last 30-second loop. Audio is recorded when the device is active. Department policy states that officers must record an incident from their arrival until they are allowed to leave or the incident is closed, he said.

Sanchez said the body cameras "go with us everywhere" and provide another perspective on any incident officers respond to.

"Everybody on the street has a cellphone or video camera to try to record the police," Sanchez said. The problem, as he sees it, is those recordings "could be taken out of context and could be inflammatory against the police."

The cameras have detractors. At the October meeting of the Richmond Police Commission, two American Civil Liberties Union members expressed concern about privacy and asked how long video evidence would be stored.

Richmond police Capt. Mark Gagan said the department is still developing its policy for storing video evidence. Currently, it will hold the data for one year, but Gagan said the department has the ability to hold footage longer, even indefinitely. Footage is stored on a third-party website that charges the department $1 per gigabyte of storage.

Gagan said footage that can be used in court will be held "until the appeal process is exhausted" and footage that captures criminal activity will be held "for at least the length of the statute of limitations," which he said is usually three years.

The ACLU's official stance on cameras operated by law enforcement is that they could be beneficial when used properly. Body cameras "have the potential to be a win-win, helping protect the public against police misconduct, and at the same time helping protect police against false accusations of abuse," according to the ACLU website. The ACLU admonished that safeguards should be in place to ensure cameras are not used for mass surveillance and that firm guidelines should dictate when officers turn the cameras on and off.

Sanchez said people should not expect privacy when interacting with law enforcement.

"We can use anything you say as evidence," Sanchez said.

This article was produced by RichmondConfidential.org, a nonprofit news service based in the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.