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City Beat

Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson wants police to consider body cameras

By Ryan Lillis and Marissa Lang

rlillis@sacbee.com

December 17, 2014 01:56 PM

Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson has asked the city Police Department to explore broad changes to the way it recruits and trains new officers, examine how cops engage with the community and launch a pilot program to equip officers with body cameras.

Speaking at the end of Tuesday’s City Council meeting, Johnson asked Police Chief Sam Somers Jr. to report back to the council next month on ways the Police Department can “restore the connectivity between our officers and the community.” Johnson’s request was the result of suggestions made by residents and neighborhood leaders at a series of town hall forums held after a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo., shot Michael Brown, an unarmed African American man.

“I think this is a topic that we as a community have to address and we have to lean into it in a real way,” the mayor said. “I just don’t want our officers to feel that the only way they’re being successful is arrests. That’s part of it, but can we measure and quantify the other side of it on the community engagement piece?”

He added he wanted Somers to tell the city “what does a good cop look like.”

It’s a difficult question to answer, said Dustin Smith, head of the Sacramento Police Officers Association.

“It’s not necessarily what that ideal officer looks like; it’s what one’s attitude is,” Smith said. “And, to me, that’s someone who’s here to do the right thing for the right reason every day. Their moral and ethical compass is proper, it’s fixed and no matter what situation, they’re looking to do what’s right. You’re looking for that character trait in a person: someone who can understand a community. ”

Smith, who attended the City Council meeting to hear the mayor’s remarks, said police officers long to do more community engagement, but they’ve been strapped and hindered by diminished resources and shrinking budgets.

“The reality is, an everyday officer out on the streets is pretty much going from one call to the next call and the ability to slow down, stop, talk to the neighbors, have those conversations, meet the children have been cut way back due to lack of funding,” Smith said.

After a grand jury declined last month to indict police Officer Darren Wilson in Brown’s death, Johnson called it “just a sad day for America.” That comment upset Smith, who said it was “a complete slap in the face to law enforcement throughout the nation.”

On Tuesday, Johnson was careful to make it clear to Somers that his directive was not a result of the city losing faith in its Police Department.

“We have an amazing Police Department,” the mayor said. “I want to make sure that our law enforcement in Sacramento doesn’t feel like they’re paying the price for every incident around the country.”

Johnson said he wants Somers to explore cultural sensitivity training, look at the best techniques to calm tense situations and train officers to better recognize when they come into contact with individuals with mental illnesses. These are things, Smith said, the department is already doing.

The mayor also endorsed the concept of placing body cameras on officers that record interactions with residents. He said he wants Somers to “look at implementing a pilot program” that could fund 25 to 50 cameras on officers.

Earlier this month, Sacramento police began testing body cameras on volunteer officers. The administration is working to hammer out a department policy outlining how the devices should be used. It’s one of several agencies in the greater Sacramento area looking to bring this new technology to the force.

Several residents have criticized the Police Department for not reflecting the diversity of Sacramento, and the mayor asked Somers to look into “long-term and sustainable” ways to diversify the police force. He said that could include recruiting more residents from the diverse city population through financial incentives and forming a charter school that focuses on public safety careers.

Of the more than 600 sworn officers in the Sacramento Police Department, less than 18 percent are women and less than a quarter are minorities, according to a 2013 annual report published by the department.

“It’s not a rocket science conversation to see we don’t fully represent the community that we serve,” Smith said. “It’s not for lack of effort ... There has been a very long conversation on diversity and it’s one that just haven’t come up with a solution for.”

Johnson also expressed interest in encouraging more sworn officers to live within city limits.

Most officers who leave city limits seek communities where they feel safe – away from the people they put behind bars and out of the bustle of inner city life. It’s why he left, Smith said, recounting two “creepy” encounters with suspects who had posted bail and found him in his community to say, “Remember me?”

In other cities around the country, initiatives to keep officers living in the communities where they serve have included offering higher pay or low-interest home loans to civil servants.

“It helps young public servants who don’t make a lot of money to be able to afford a home within the city that makes them a full vested partner in the city,” Smith said. “We need to find ways to make living in Sacramento so attractive to the newer officers that you wouldn’t want to choose another community over this.”

As part of his report back to the city, Johnson wants Somers to look at the budget impacts of making these changes.

The mayor on Tuesday appointed a city committee to track the Police Department’s work on his directions. Council members Allen Warren, Angelique Ashby and Rick Jennings will sit on the committee, along with police officials, city attorneys and a representative from the city’s office of Public Safety and Accountability.

“I believe we have a great Police Department and we can do better and we’re willing to do that,” the mayor said.

Call The Bee’s Ryan Lillis, (916) 321-1085. Read his City Beat blog at www.sacbee.com/citybeat.