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Isla Vista Foot Patrol officer Mark Ward wears a VidMic body camera in this January 2015 file photo. 

A proposal to acquire body-worn cameras to enhance transparency of Santa Maria Police operations wasn't included in the 2020-22 city budget, despite a request by Chief Phil Hansen and local calls for the equipment following a high-profile arrest in December 2019. 

More than 40% of the 2020-21 general fund is allocated to the Santa Maria Police Department, with close to $66 million to fund personnel salaries and benefits for the next two years. The budget for 2020-21 totals $217 million, while the second year's total will be calculated following a midcycle review.

The city is facing budget constraints, however, due to a 12-year structural deficit and $10.8 million in general fund losses due to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to spokesman Mark van de Kamp. 

"The city recognizes the need and proposes to acquire the cameras to aid gathering evidence and to demonstrate transparency," van de Kamp said. "There are far more budget requests than available revenues." 

Individual body cameras can cost anywhere between $500 and $1,000, although it's uncertain how many were requested by Hansen, who didn't immediately reply to an email seeking comment on how much his proposal cost. 

Requests for body cameras came from both Hansen and community members including Abraham Melendrez with the Central Coast United for a Sustainable Economy (CAUSE), following the video-recorded arrest of 28-year-old Alejandro Meza in the 800 block of West Barrett Street on Oct. 20.

Meza was arrested following a half-mile police pursuit, and his apprehension involved use-of-force methods that included a K-9 unit and pepper-spray projectiles. 

Calls for more police transparency also have been fueled by protests, including some in Santa Maria, sparked by the May 25 death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who was killed when a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly 9 minutes. 

Van de Kamp said demonstrations have not influenced the budget process. 

One call for the cameras came from Central Coast Congressman Salud Carbajal, who on June 9 co-sponsored the Justice in Policing Act, which would require state and local police to use existing funds for body cameras.

"It was important for me to make the request and show that the department supports their use," Hansen said. "Bear in mind that this is the proposed budget, pending review and final approval by the [City] Council."

The city used facilitator Jan Perkins from Management Partners to hash out budget priorities during a Feb. 14 council meeting at the Santa Maria Inn. Then the budget was submitted to the City Council after a review by a 10-member team led by City Manager Jason Stilwell. 

Stilwell ultimately nixed the body cams from the two-year budget but tentatively approved them for the 2022-23 year, van de Kamp said, although the City Council still could discuss and vote on the matter at Tuesday's virtual meeting. People can watch the meeting online at 5:30 p.m. and submit public comments prior to 3 p.m. 

A report released by the Santa Barbara County grand jury in 2017 concluded that body cameras came with a number of benefits, including reduced use-of-force complaints and a positive effect on local police operations, but raised cost concerns.  

In addition to individual camera costs, storage could cost up to tens of thousands of dollars more, the report said. 

"The problem for a lot of small agencies like ours is the storage of the video," said Lompoc Police Capt. Kevin Martin. "It's far outside anything the city can afford."

In Lompoc, three cameras were purchased by individual Lompoc Police officers with their own money, Martin said, although former chief Pat Walsh suspended their use until a department policy was developed. No such policy came and Walsh retired in 2019. 

The Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Office, which began a pilot program in 2014, has at least 30 body cameras in use between its Isla Vista Foot Patrol unit, K-9 handlers, civil units and school resource officers, according to spokeswoman Raquel Zick. 

The Guadalupe Police Department equipped its officers with body cameras in 2016 after purchasing 16 of them, said Sgt. Frank Medina. 

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