The New Expert Witness: Wearable Police Cameras

By Krystina Steffen, staff writer – October 5, 2011

Thousands of police departments nationwide are using wearable cameras and relying less on mounted vehicle cams. Police do much of their work outside the squad car, and with better technology readily available, it is only a matter of time before the various styles are used by these and other critical responders. Civil rights activists applaud the technology as vehicle cams were often prone to malfunctioning and did not catch alleged police violence inflicted on innocent people.

Wearable police cameras come in a few different styles – head mounted or clipped to clothing, buttons or lapels. The different manufacturers have tested them in all types of lighting and potential skirmishes that police deal with everyday. The technology has been around since 2007, but has received a big boost this fall as some top police departments have adopted or tested it. After incidents tarnished police departments in Austin, Oakland, Seattle, and Phoenix, for example, these wearable video cams were used to start to regain public trust. Incidents in these cities garnered police departments with the reputation of “shooting first and then asking questions”.

These new video cameras range from the size of a cigarette lighter to a pager and involve one to two steps to work. At best, vehicle cams took six steps to operate, and driving infraction and crime scene pullovers as well as emergency stops are hardly any time to be going through lengthy steps to make a camera work. The Law Enforcement and Emergency Services Video Association even created a manual in the past to help law enforcement with concerns about audio, lighting, recording integrity, and pre-planning. [1]

Body cams provide better recording and file management than their predecessors. The various manufacturers, such as VIEVU and TASER, have longer recording time, battery life, date and time stamps, authentication certificates, and video storage systems. TASER’s AXON head camera has 110 degrees of field of view from its lens. [2] The cams are waterproof and have security logins that prevent access if the camera should be stolen or lost. [3] Many of these devices can be interconnected with radio earpieces.

Some departments that have tested the devices are concerned about the overwhelming amount of data that could start to pile up and the ability to search for key parts of the video for reports, litigation, and further investigations. Manufacturers are starting to address these concerns by using similar technology to Flickr and Facebook where images of people can be tagged and video can be narrated or markers added during or after recording. TASER’s head cam has a charger that also doubles as a video uploader. Instead of physical files or hard drives getting filled indefinitely, TASER has a cloud database online called Evidence that stores all the data. A searchable database for each department allows easy review and recall of videos.

Civil rights advocates and police are equally excited about the potential of these user point of view cameras. Questions of police upholding a citizen’s rights, following the law, and carrying out justice will be easier to determine. Citizens will be able to prove if they were illegally searched, hurt, or the police got trigger-happy and did not truly act in self defense. Increased law enforcement accountability through wearable cameras brings a new level of truth to the forefront.

“The public likes it because it provides another level of accountability, and police like it because it’s protection for their actions,” said policeman Chris Myers from the Seattle Police Department. [4]

Video is a powerful tool that can greatly change a person’s behavior, no matter if they are a citizen or a cop. If society knew they were being watched up close and personal – and not feet away from a dashboard cam – it could proactively stop bad behavior. Steve Ward, the founder of VIEVU says that, “People act differently on camera. If a police officer comes up to you and says, ‘This is being recorded,’ you’re likely to be much more congenial.” [5]

When complaints are filed against a cop or an entire department, this video evidence is crucial for lawyers to determine if there is a case or not. Reviews of video can also provide invaluable training lessons for departments to take corrective measures against wrongdoing. As police cannot tamper with the videos or erase them, the truth will be far more evident than the shortcomings inherent in vehicle cameras.

“We’re trying to get more transparency,” said BART Police Chief Kenton Rainey, based out Oakland, Calif. and head of law enforcement for the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system. [6] “Plus it’s actually better protection for our personnel, because the camera is going to be the best evidence of what transpired at an incident.”

Not only can the devices provide better accountability for what happens in one-on-one situations, but they can give insight on what occurs during uncontrollable crowd situations, riots, and other instances of chaos. The main concerns regarding wearable cameras involve the cost of the units, storage constraints and the access to the information. Many police departments are applying for federal grants through the Department of Justice or the Department of Homeland Security to test or adopt the devices that range from $900 to more than $2,900 each. Add in the cost of data storage too, and for a department of 50 cops, this can add up quickly.

But when taken in the scheme of things, the cost of wearable cams does not cost quite that much. In comparison to a fleet of new vehicles, or even more important, lessened litigation costs and reduced investigation hours, the body cams can be a justified cost. Yet if federal grants start to dry up due to the budget cuts, departments will have to make some hard decisions.

Others are more concerned about how police departments record and then give access to the videos. What happens if they forget to turn the device on even if it is one or two clicks to activate? What if they forget to snap it on or lose it? And doesn’t every device eventually malfunction? Also, some police departments are not so open to giving access to video recordings. The Seattle Police Department is currently being sued for not giving the local news station KOMO access to dash-cam videos, so who is to say certain departments would not do the same with wearable cam video recordings? [7] Whether it is a news institution or a citizen, authorities must be reminded that the Freedom of Information Act and other state regulations concerning records are a law, and barring any other restrictions, records should be made publicly available when it is for the greater good.

As the technology progresses, recording consent laws will need to be updated in some states. Other security personnel, first responders, bouncers and even insurance adjusters might adopt the wearable devices in their line of work too. The evolution of these devices comes at a critical time for police to be more transparent, the public to feel more trust, and the accountability bar to be raised.

Sources

[1] http://leva.org/pdf/CRIMESCENEGUIDE2007.pdf

[2] http://www.taser.com/products/on-officer-video/taser-axon

[3] http://www.vievu.com/products/

[4] http://www.seattlepi.com/local/article/Small-wearable-cameras-could-help-keep-an-eye-on-1264286.php

[5] Id.

[6] http://sanfrancisco.cbslocal.com/2011/09/28/phil-matier-bart-police-officers-to-wear-cameras/

[7] http://blogs.seattleweekly.com/dailyweekly/2011/09/seattle_police_department_sued.php

The SEO | Law Firm™ News Center extends editorial freedom to their staff writers; thus the views expressed in this column may not reflect the views of SEO | Law Firm™, Adviatech Corp., or any of its holdings, affiliates, or advertisers.