Spurred by the videotaped beating of Rodney G. King by Los Angeles police, the Orange County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday approved a $467,190 plan to put video cameras inside all 79 sheriff's patrol cars to furnish a firsthand account of deputies' activities.
The decision marks the first time in the nation that a law enforcement agency will put video cameras in its entire patrol fleet, according to the camera's maker and the head of a national police association.
"All of our black-and-whites will have the cameras," said Assistant Sheriff Dennis W. LaDucer, who helped organize the project.
"The intent is to build confidence . . . in the public that they can trust us, and we're willing to record what we do to build it," LaDucer said. "We're demonstrating that we're not fearful about what we do out there."
The video cameras, which cost about $5,200 each, are about the size of a fist and will be mounted from the rearview mirror.
The cameras are activated automatically when the car's emergency lights are turned on, or manually by the deputy. They generally will be positioned to record the field of view directly ahead of the patrol car, but deputies can also rotate the cameras 360 degrees.
Deputies will also wear wireless microphones to provide audio recordings.
While the plan was opposed Tuesday by a Southland man who claims to hold a patent for the camera, it appears to have won broad support from county officials, the sheriff's deputies association and those cities that contract with the county for police protection.
At a time when tensions over charges of police brutality have increased, advocates said, the videotaping should cut down on conflicting testimony and "guesswork" in traffic stops, arrests and other incidents of confrontations between law enforcement officers and the public.
The videotapes' most dramatic effect may come in the courtroom.
According to the camera's manufacturer, CrimTec Corp. of Michigan, one study in Canada of videotaped drunk-driving arrests found that guilty pleas rose substantially, while the overtime that officers spent in the courtroom having to testify about their arrests dropped.
Dana Point Mayor Mike Eggers, whose city is served by the Sheriff's Department, said videotaping is "an excellent idea. . . . A lot of people no longer hold law enforcement in high esteem, and this should counter that."
Supervisor Gaddi H. Vasquez said he wished the cameras were available when he was a police officer.
Having the capability to videotape police activities, he said, "benefits everybody involved" and signals "the new trend in California."
Orange County sheriff's officials first began discussing the idea of using the video cameras after seeing a tape of a murder of a police officer in Texas. The shooting was taped by a mobile unit, LaDucer said.
Those discussions began in January, 1991--before the videotaping of the King beating. But the King episode, which produced criminal charges against four Los Angeles Police Department officers who are now on trial in Ventura County, helped garner support for the project among county officials, LaDucer said.
"With what's happened with Rodney King," LaDucer said, "it puts this issue on the front burner, and you have people saying, 'We should do this.' "
At Tuesday's meeting, Ventura County resident Joseph A. Michetti claimed to have invented the cameras being sold to the county and charged that CrimTec Corp. is illegally manufacturing the product without his permission. He gave supervisors copies of a six-page U.S. patent to support his claim.
But CrimTec officials later denied the charge, saying their product is more sophisticated than the one patented by Michetti. And the Board of Supervisors rejected Michetti's request for a 120-day delay in the deal, deciding instead to add language to the agreement to protect the county from liability.
Supervisors then unanimously approved the video-camera plan.
The decision provides for the county to pay $240,000 from county drug-forfeiture funds to buy 40 video cameras for patrol units serving unincorporated areas of the county.
The supervisors also approved leasing an additional 39 cameras to five cities that contract with the Sheriff's Department, at a cost of $227,190. Or those cities--Dana Point, Laguna Niguel, Mission Viejo, San Juan Capistrano and Villa Park--can buy the units outright from CrimTech.
By next fiscal year, the remaining contract cities--Laguna Hills, Lake Forest and Stanton--are expected to buy or lease more than 20 additional cameras for sheriff's patrol cars, county officials said.
The first video cameras will be in place by July, LaDucer said.
Some cities around the country--including Garden Grove--have begun to use video cameras in a few of their patrol units or for specific assignments. But John Moore, executive director of the National Police Officers Assn. in Louisville, Ky., said he knew of no other law enforcement agency in the country that has moved to put cameras in all its patrol vehicles.
"It's really a positive step forward that should protect both the officer and the citizens," he said in an interview. "I applaud the Orange County Sheriff's Department for being that progressive."
* ANAHEIM BOLSTERS FORCE: City diverting $1.1 million from hotel tax for more police to fight gangs. B12