LAGUNA BEACH — Seeking to cut claims filed against the city, Laguna Beach police officers will soon begin wearing miniature recorders on their belts to tape conversations with citizens.
The decision stems in part from the department "having our fair share of claims and lawsuits," Police Chief Neil J. Purcell Jr. said. "I want to try to do something to reduce the liability for this city."
The idea of recording contacts between officers and citizens is catching on in Orange County. Six months ago, the Sheriff's Department became the first law enforcement agency in the nation to install video cameras in all of its cruisers.
Officers in Huntington Beach and Garden Grove also make some use of audio or video recorders, but according to a survey conducted by the Laguna Beach department, Brea is the only police force in Orange County that requires its officers to wear and use tape recorders.
Police officials in Laguna Beach and Brea say recording devices can be extremely helpful in court, in resolving disputes with residents and in heading off liability claims.
"I clearly see it as an officer safety issue and an officer survival issue," Purcell said. "They will not have to go through all the stress and trauma of these frivolous type complaints."
In Laguna Beach, officials say the size of claims against the police has risen in recent years. In 1991, the city paid $100,000 to a man who was kicked by an officer during an arrest captured on videotape. Last year, the city spent $450,000 to settle a case regarding a homeless man who died of injuries sustained after being run over by a police car.
Those high-profile settlements likely would not have been affected by the use of recorders. However, Purcell said claims against police would generally be "significantly reduced" if the officers' conversations with the public were recorded.
While the plan has the backing of the city and the previous police union leadership, the current union board has raised questions about it.
Detective George Ramos, who heads the Laguna Beach Police Assn., said there is sufficient uneasiness among officers about the "Big Brother" aspects of the plan that he would want the membership to vote on the use of tape recorders--and such a vote might not come before July.
City officials, however, said it is unlikely that union approval is required. In addition, Purcell said he moved forward "in good faith" after the previous board's endorsement.
Officers will likely begin using the recorders in February, he said.
In Brea, where officers have been wearing tape recorders since the late 1970s, the devices have been very helpful, Brea Police Capt. Jim Oman said.
"We probably go to court with them a couple times a month where the question of what people said becomes an issue, whether the officer advised them of their rights or whether the officer said this or that," he said. "Those tapes are very helpful to resolve those issues."
Hal Snow, assistant director of the Commission on Peace Officers' Standards and Training in Sacramento, said that the use of both audio- and video-recording devices is increasing, statewide and throughout the nation.
"Video recording is probably taking the place of sound recordings in a lot of respects and in a lot of cases," he said. The more expensive cameras tend to have "somehow a calming effect" on crowds and at parties, he said.
In fact, Purcell said, he will ask the City Council during upcoming budget discussions to approve the purchase of 11 video cameras for police patrol cars. Although they cost $5,200 apiece, Purcell said the devices are "worth their weight in gold" when claims arise.
Video recorders have been very helpful in Huntington Beach, where they have been placed in sergeants' patrol cars since 1987, police Lt. Patrick Gildea said. Police became convinced of the value of video recordings after a 1986 riot near the Huntington Beach Pier.
The use of videotapes made by private citizens led to the conviction of some of the "main players" in the riot, Gildea said. Some defendants had denied they were at the disturbance, Gildea said, but after viewing tapes "several of (their attorneys) on the spot said, 'What can we negotiate?' "
Huntington Beach police also wear audio recorders on their belts, Gildea said, but use them at their own discretion.
Some Garden Grove officers also wear recorders, said Sgt. Randy Tucker, but they are not required to use them. Video cameras are used in Garden Grove only for officer training.
The Laguna Beach department is now in the process of setting policy on when officers must use the recorders, Deputy Chief Jim Spreine said. While some Laguna Beach officers have been concerned that the recorders will be used to monitor their every word, Purcell said that is not the case.
For example, the recorders may remain off when an officer is taking a crime report, he said. In more volatile situations, however, Purcell said, the recorders should prove to be a valuable tool.