If you're ever stopped by a police officer, you may find yourself staring at a camera.
More than 3,000 police departments around the country, including Dallas, Cincinnati, Houston, Oakland, Phoenix, and San Jose have supplied officers with uniform, or body-worn, cameras to document their encounters with citizens.
According to some authorities, the cameras have already led to a decrease in lawsuits and egregious citizen complaints against police, but key law enforcement groups have so far withheld a formal endorsement—setting the stage for what may soon become a wider public debate over the expanding application of new technologies to policing.
“(The uniform camera) will likely be a standard piece of equipment,” predicts Greg Steckler, president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP). “But it will only be as effective as the policies set forth by (individual) police departments.”
The IACP expects to release formal policy recommendations for use of the cameras within the next six months—updating a 2002 study—and the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), the country's leading think tank on policing issues, plans to come out with its own study in the Fall.
Many chiefs are already convinced that the cameras will improve community-police relations.
“This technology can help reduce mistrust in the government,” Art Acevedo, chief of the Austin TX police department, was quoted as saying in a 2012 PERF report assessing the impact of innovative technologies on policing.
According to Steckler, the cameras are a critical tool for increasing the transparency of police work, enabling the public to understand the context of a police-citizen contact and assess the reasons for whatever level of force is used by the officers.
“Already departments that use the body cameras are seeing a decrease in citizen complaints and lawsuits,” Steckler told The Crime Report. “The side benefit is that it helps officers stay within the framework of the Constitution during suspect content.”
It may not be a coincidence that many departments which have chosen to adopt the new technology have been under pressure from the federal government and civil liberties groups over abuse allegations.
Albuquerque Joins the Trend
The latest to join the group is the Albuquerque Police Department (APD), which turned to the micro cameras after being plagued by more than a decade of complaints about the excessive use of deadly force.
Between 2009 and 2011, APD officers were involved in 25 shootings—with 17 suspects killed. The number of shootings triggered a Department of Justice (DOJ) investigation in 2012. The investigation is continuing.
Marie Martinez, spokeswoman for APD, said the mandatory use of the cameras is now a department-wide policy, following a two-year pilot project.
“They (uniform cameras) were rolled out department-wide in January-February 2012, and we have been using them ever since,” Martinez said.
According to Martinez, the units, with a battery life of nearly 12 hours, can be mounted to the officer’s collar or glasses, giving a much closer perspective to what the officer actually sees.
They are easy to turn on and off, and the devices emit a beep to let officers know they are still recording. The purchase price includes a fee for storage of recordings in Evidence.com, which will avoid the need (and expense) for producing physical DVDs.
Martinez said all of APD's 1,100 patrol officers are now required to wear a unit or face disciplinary action.
Stills and clips from the cameras have also been accepted as court evidence, but the APD refused to release details about specific cases.
Martinez did not say whether any officer had refused the device, but she said it would likely be in the officer's best interest to wear it: not only have they helped mitigate false allegations against officers, the uniform cameras have also been used to clear officers of what many in the public believed were dubious shootings by police.
Fifteen days after wearing the device became mandatory in Albuquerque, a video camera captured a suspect apologizing for assaulting an officer. The suspect, who had left a gash on the officer's head, later died in custody. Police and rescue personnel claimed the suspect had suffered a “medical episode,” and the camera footage appeared to prove the officer had nothing to do with the death.
“It showed (police) had done nothing wrong,” APD Chief Ray Shultz claimed later.
Seattle Shows Interest
Seattle cops may soon be next. After the Seattle Police Department was hit with a 2011 DOJ civil investigation into the use of excessive force that found “systematic” violations,” the agency began contemplating joining the ranks of camera-ready officers.
Det. Mark Jamieson, a Seattle police spokesman, said the proposed pilot project, which will initially involve a small number of officers who will voluntarily wear the cameras, has been complicated by union and contract concerns.
“We agreed in our last contract negotiations with the city that we would see if the cameras would be feasible,” Jamieson said, noting that city officials pushed for the cameras in light of the DOJ report.
“It is a contractual issue because of what may happen to the employee if they don't turn the camera on when they are expected to.”
According to Jamieson, uniform cameras could be advantageous to officers in the street.
“The cameras show what really happens, (they) make no judgment,” Jamieson said. “Without this, dynamic police can be wrongly accused of excessive force.”
The 2002 study by the IACP, “Impact of Video Evidence on Modern Policing,” found that in cases of citizen complaints against police, approximately 95 percent of the 3,000 reported cases were withdrawn once complainants knew video of the event existed.
The study was based on a national survey of police department use of body worn video cameras.
Only 5 percent of the video incidents resulted in a sustained complaint against an officer, with the remainder being exonerated— confirming, in those cases, that an officer's actions were judged reasonable.
Steve Lovell, managing director of Seattle-based Vievu, one of the leading manufacturers of uniform cameras, considers the device an extension of the dash camera technology that came into play in the early 1990s to document DUI stops.
Dash cameras are stationary, where the line of sight is limited to the position of the camera in the car. The uniform camera opens the field of sight to essentially what the officer is seeing.
The camera performs the function of a “third-party witness,” Lovell said.
“Information in reports is interpreted and becomes vague over time; the camera eliminates that.”
Lovell says the cameras are activated in “deployment dependent circumstances” but has found them used in 99 percent of citizen contact situations, that is, when an officers comes in direct contact with a suspect or even a witness/bystander.
According to Lovell, law enforcement agencies are still developing the proper language determining when an officer “shall,” “may,” or “will” activate the camera in given situations.
He said that while there have been concerns about privacy rights relating to camera use, judges have upheld the argument that if an officer is called to a scene the individual essentially waives any right to privacy.
“There's no difference between that and a citizen videotaping police officers while they are working,” Lovell said.
The cost can represent a serious strain on a department's budget. But for the APD, which purchased 2,200 cameras at $130 apiece for a total of $286,000, the high price tag is worth it when balanced against the costs incurred by the city from suits related to police shootings over the last decade.
In March, an Albuquerque jury awarded $7.6 million to the family of Iraq War vet Kenneth Ellis III, who was shot and killed outside a convenience store in 2010. Detective Brett Lampiris-Tremba, the officer who shot Ellis, was held personally liable for $2.7 million.
In 2011, APD commissioned a Police Executive Research Forum study on how to reduce shootings. The PERF study was a broad-spectrum study of common characteristics of victims and the officers involved in shootings, and any other factors the department can address, but uniform cameras were not among the recommendations.
“Nobody wants to be involved in an officer shooting,” said outgoing APD Chief Schultz, who announced his resignation a week after the Ellis judgment. “Our goal is not to use any force.”
Culture of Force
One skeptical Albuquerque civil rights attorney argues that, despite the cameras, citizens should not expect the culture of force that prevails among Albuquerque police to change any time soon.
“Change is not happening fast enough,” attorney Rosario Vega Lynn said in an interview with The Crime Report. “Chief Schultz’s retirement is not going to result in any significant changes in the department.”
Vega Lynn continued: “As for use of force, it is unclear to me why APD did not use bean bags or tasers against Ken Ellis III. I am uncertain, and the record is unclear, why these non-deadly means were not used.”
The outcome may have been different had the officers been wearing uniform cameras.
On November 27, 2012, the Justice Department, at the request of the Albuquerque City Council launched a civil investigation of the APD's use of deadly force.
The investigation will focus on allegations that APD officers engage in use of excessive force, including the use of unreasonable deadly force, in their encounters with civilians.
Martinez said numbers since officers began wearing the cameras have been inconclusive.
“We do not have sufficient data to produce an accurate percentage,” Martinez said.
Joseph Kolb is an adjunct instructor in the Criminal Justice Program at Western New Mexico University, where he developed the undergraduate and graduate certificate program in Border Security Studies. A veteran journalist he has written about criminal justice issues for the New York Times, FoxNews.com Global Intelligence and Journal of Counter Terrorism and Homeland Security. Joe welcomes comments from readers.