By Andrew Keatts and Ry Rivard.
Without much fanfare, the Metropolitan Transit System’s security officers joined the growing list of local law enforcement officers outfitted with body-worn cameras.
But while MTS has had the cameras in the field since fall 2014, they’ve not yet written formal policies for how officers are supposed to use the cameras, or for how and when the public gets to see the footage.
Now MTS is expanding the use of body cameras to its private security contractors – who make up the vast majority of MTS’s force – footage from those cameras won’t be available to the public without a court order, according to a new contract between MTS and the company, Universal Protection Services.
That means footage involving roughly 80 percent of MTS’s security force may remain hidden from the public. And there are no set rules governing the release of footage captured by the other 20 percent.
MTS relies on roughly 35 transit officers to write citations on trolleys and buses and keep the peace throughout the system. The agency started outfitting those officers with body-worn cameras in July 2014 – every officer has been wearing them since September 2014, around the same time the San Diego Police Department took the step.
Overall, it cost the agency just $76,000 for all the cameras, accessories and data support needed to run the program.
But MTS also has a contract with an outside firm, Universal Protection Services, to provide the system with another 170 or so additional security guards.
MTS this month inked a new contract with Universal Protection Services that could be worth up to $39 million over the next five years.
As part of that contract, Universal Protection Services will be responsible for outfitting all of its guards with body cameras and storing all the footage.
But the agreement also stipulates that the company will store the camera footage, and it explicitly states that the UPS footage will not be considered a public record under state law.
“Contractor’s video shall not be considered an MTS record or public document under the California Public Records Act,” the agreement reads.
Instead, the footage will be used for MTS internal investigations, and would be disclosed if it becomes part of a criminal or civil lawsuit.
That’s a departure from how MTS handled a recent dispute that was caught on film.
Earlier this month, MTS disclosed footage of a 2014 use-of-force incident involving a group of its officers, following a California Public Records Act request from Voice of San Diego and NBC 7 Investigates.
The footage captured the officers confronting a janitor who they believed was trespassing but who was actually employed at MTS headquarters.
The body cameras captured most of the ordeal, from when the man’s boss showed up on the scene to clarify that he in fact was not trespassing, to when the officers violently arrested him anyway, sending him to the hospital in the process.
Koka filed a lawsuit that contends one of the officers intentionally removed his camera during the arrest and placed it on the hood of a car “in an effort to conceal” what was happening from being filmed. MTS said in a court filing that the camera merely “fell off during the incident.”
MTS’s head of security, Guaderrama, said officers are supposed to turn on their cameras prior to all enforcement actions. There’s no other official policy codifying that directive.
Likewise, MTS spokesman Rob Schupp said there’s no official policy for releasing footage to the public. In the case of the janitor who was arrested when he showed up to work, his lawyer acquired the footage after filing a lawsuit; Voice of San Diego and NBC 7 Investigates also acquired the footage through a public records request.
In a hearing before an MTS board committee just a month after the cameras were deployed, then-head of MTS security Bill Burke said the cameras had already shown positive results.
Burke said they’d nullified a complaint against an officer alleging verbal and physical abuse at the Convention Center trolley station. The footage of the incident showed nothing of the sort had taken place, Burke said.