10:01pm

Sun November 6, 2011
Digital Life

As More Police Wear Cameras, Policy Questions Arise

Originally published on Mon November 7, 2011 10:13 am

The next time you talk to a police officer, you might find yourself staring into a lens. Companies such as Taser and Vievu are making small, durable cameras designed to be worn on police officer's uniforms. The idea is to capture video from the officer's point of view, for use as evidence against suspects, as well as to help monitor officers' behavior toward the public.

The concept is catching on. The cameras have been adopted by big city police departments, such as Cincinnati and Oakland, Calif., as well as dozens of smaller cities, such as Bainbridge Island, Wash., where the Vievu camera was initially tested by Officer Ben Sias.

"The only thing that really was different about doing business is that I'd tell the person that we're being recorded," Sias says. He sees the camera as a kind of insurance policy.

"In this job, we're frequently accused of things we haven't done, or things were kind of embellished, as far as contact," he says. "And the cameras show a pretty unbiased opinion of what actually did happen."

That makes the cameras particularly appealing in cities where the police have been accused of misconduct.

In Seattle, for example, the police department is being investigated by the Justice Department after a series of amateur videos showed police officers punching or kicking suspects. The problem with some of those videos, says Seattle City Councilman Bruce Harrell, is that they often capture only part of an incident.

"What we have now are videos after the fact — the 'second punch' kind of situation," Harrell says.

That's why Harrell wants Seattle police to start wearing cameras, too. He has asked the mayor to include money in next year's budget for a pilot project, equipping a handful of Seattle police with the cameras. He says he hopes the result will be a more complete view of police encounters with the public, as well as better behavior across the board.

"People behave differently when they are on camera," Harrell says, "so these cameras I believe can restore trust."

Harrell's enthusiasm is not shared by Sgt. Rich O'Neill, president of the Seattle Police Officers' Guild. O'Neill doesn't like the fact that many of the departments that have adopted wearable cameras have given their officers little discretion: They're required to record every contact with the public, and can't stop recording until it's over — even if a citizen asks them to.

O'Neill says people should think hard about what it will mean to have police officers show up at the front door with a camera rolling.

"Maybe I'm there for something as small as a noise complaint," O'Neill says. "Maybe I'm at your home for something much more serious, maybe it's a terribly traumatic event, domestic violence victim, child abuse victim, and I'm going to be walking into that home, videotaping."

Before police departments adopt the wearable cameras, they usually have to negotiate the ground rules with the local police union. One especially contentious issue is access: The unions generally want guarantees that superiors won't be able to use the videos to monitor officers' daily routine, or troll through the videos in search of minor infractions.

At the same time, police officers want to make sure they have access to their own tapes. In Oakland recently, a police officer who shot a suspect wanted to view his own video before making a formal statement; his request was denied, even though Oakland rules allow police to see the tapes. Department officials have now called that decision a "mistake," and the Oakland Police Officers Association has secured assurances that officers in similar situations will be able to see their own tapes.

Rocky Lucia, the association's lawyer, says nobody has recollection that's as accurate as a video — not even a cop. "There's going to be inconsistencies," he says. "It's our job, as the union, or the association representing the police officers, to make sure the officer isn't held accountable for inconsistencies that could lead one to believe that the officer is not being truthful."

But some people worry about the opposite problem — that the only ones with easy access to the videos will be the authorities. In Seattle, Eric Rachner won a $60,000 judgment against the city because of its reluctance to turn over police videos. Rachner wanted the videos — shot from squad car dashboard cameras — because he believed they would prove that he'd been the victim of an illegal arrest in 2008.

"They really don't want to give it out unless it is just a clear-cut example of something that supports what the officer said, or tends to show that the arrestee is guilty," Rachner says.

Rachner says it took months before the city even acknowledged the existence of some of the videos he requested. He subsequently demanded and received a log of all Seattle police dash cam videos shot in the past three years, which he posted to the Seattle Police Video Project online. The idea is to make it easier for other people to check whether the police have videos of them. He plans to keep updating the site, and if Seattle police start wearing cameras, those videos should be searchable, too.

"Events that occur in public and are recorded, especially in the course of a public officer doing his public duty — that's fair game," Rachner says.

While police videos are generally considered public records, in practice, they're often difficult to obtain. Most cities refuse to turn over footage that is part of an investigation, and some are now instituting restrictions based on privacy concerns.

For example, Oakland will no longer turn over videos of traffic stops in which the officer's camera captures an image of a driver's license or insurance card. Department officials say they'd like to release the video with the private data blacked out, but they say they don't have the necessary video editing gear.

Despite these restrictions, public interest in the footage is likely to intensify, as wearable cameras capture more and more of what police officers see every day.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Around the country, police are being accused of excessive force in dealing with Occupy Wall Street protests. That's the case in Oakland, California, where a protestor was seriously injured, allegedly by a police tear gas canister.

These types of complaints are nothing new, but now a growing number of police are arming themselves with technology to document their side of the story. NPR's Martin Kaste reports some officers are now wearing mini-video cameras, something that's creating thorny new disputes.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Hispanic male, got a black shirt, blue jeans, standing in front yard. He's got two machetes in his hands.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: You've seen police videos, but maybe not quite from this angle. In this footage, recorded in Texas, you see the suspect from the point of view of the officer holding the gun.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Put it down, I do not want to shoot you, man. Put it down.

KASTE: No one got shot in that scene, just tasered.

This recording is on the website of VIEVU, one of a handful of companies now making wearable cameras for cops. VIEVU's $900 device looks like a clip-on pager. Officer Ben Sias tested it for the Bainbridge Island Police Department in Washington State.

BEN SIAS: It's mounted either in the car or I can wear it on my uniform. And normally when I would go on a traffic stop or make a contact, I would flip it on. And the only thing that really was different as far as doing business would be that I'd tell the person that we were being recorded.

KASTE: Most of the time, Sias says, people don't even seem to register the presence of the camera. They have other things on their minds. Sias sees the cameras as a kind of insurance.

SIAS: In this job we're frequently accused of things that we haven't done or things are kind of embellished. Sometimes people's perception or what they report may not be what happened. And the cameras show a pretty unbiased opinion of what actually did happen.

KASTE: That's the hope, anyway. On the other side of Puget Sound, the Seattle Police Department is looking for ways to handle the fallout from other people's videos. For instance, this one, last year, showing a Seattle cop punching a teenage girl.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Ooh...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Are you serious?

(SOUNDBITE OF SCREAM)

KASTE: Seattle City Council member Bruce Harrell says images like this have undermined community confidence in Seattle police.

BRUCE HARRELL: What we have now are videos after the fact, you know, the second punch kind of situation.

KASTE: So Harrell is pushing for Seattle police to wear cameras too. He wants a more complete view of some of these controversial encounters between police and the public, and he's also hoping to get a calming effect from the camera's very presence.

HARRELL: People behave differently when they are on camera. I'm behaving differently, because you have a microphone in front of my face. That's what human beings do - both the public and the officers. So these cameras, I believe, can restore trust.

KASTE: Harrell's enthusiasm is not shared by Sergeant Rich O'Neill, president of the Seattle Police Officers Guild. He doesn't like the fact that many of the departments that have adopted the wearable cameras have given their officers little discretion. They're required to record every contact with the public, and they can't stop recording until it's over, even if a citizen asks them to. Sergeant O'Neill says people should think hard about what it'll mean to have police officers show up at the front door with a camera rolling.

SERGEANT RICH O'NEILL: Now I'm bringing the camera into your home. And maybe I'm there for something as small as a noise complaint. Maybe I'm at your home for something much more serious. Maybe it's a terribly traumatic event, domestic violence victim, a child abuse victim. And I'm going to be walking in that home, videotaping.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

(SOUNDBITE OF SCREAMING AND EXPLOSIONS)

KASTE: Of course, in public, there's no escaping cameras anymore.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

(SOUNDBITE OF FLASH EXPLOSIONS)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: What the (bleep) was that?

KASTE: This is YouTube video of the mayhem that broke out recently between Occupy protestors and police in Oakland, California. Some of it was posted with running commentary.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: But if you doubt that the police were deliberately aiming at the protestors, watch this policeman.

KASTE: It can get pretty forensic.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: Watch that again.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION)

KASTE: What these YouTube sleuths may not realize is the fact that Oakland police are equipped with wearable cameras, so they may very well have a recording of their perspective on that very same scene. If they do, you won't be seeing it on TV any time soon. Oakland doesn't release police footage that's part of an active investigation. And that's not necessarily a bad thing, says Rocky Lucia.

ROCKY LUCIA: Facts don't come out on a 30-second YouTube video.

KASTE: Lucia is the lawyer for the Police Officers Association in Oakland. Departments generally negotiate with their police unions before they adopt the cameras. And the unions push for rules that limit access. For instance, police don't want supervisors trolling through the videos, looking for infractions.

At the same time, officers also want access to their own tapes. In Oakland, Lucia has made sure that cops get to see their own recordings before writing reports or making official statements.

LUCIA: There's going to be inconsistencies. It's our job, as the union, or the association representing the police officers, to make sure that the officer isn't held accountable for inconsistencies that could lead one to believe that the officer is not being truthful.

KASTE: But some people worry about the opposite problem, that the only ones with easy access to the videos will be the authorities.

ERIC RACHNER: My name is Eric Rachner, and we're standing at the corner where three years ago last week the Seattle Police arrested me illegally.

KASTE: The reason for Rachner's arrest doesn't really matter here. Suffice it to say that it had something to do with a sidewalk game of something called Nerf golf. What's significant here is that Rachner believed he'd be exonerated by police videos, footage from dashboard cameras in this case. But when he tried to get the videos, the city dragged its feet, for months. He says for a while the city wouldn't even acknowledge that some of the videos existed.

RACHNER: They really just don't want to give it out unless it is just a clear-cut example of something that supports what the officer said or tends to show that the arrestee is guilty.

KASTE: Rachner eventually received a $60,000 public disclosure judgment. He also demanded, and got, a log of all Seattle police videos shot in the last three years. And he's now posted that on a searchable website to make it easier for people to find out if police have recordings of them. He plans to keep updating the site. And if Seattle cops start wearing cameras, those videos should be searchable too.

RACHNER: Events that occur in public and are recorded, especially in the course of a public officer doing his public duty, that's fair game.

KASTE: Police videos are generally considered public records. But in practice, departments are giving new reasons not to release them. For instance, Oakland is now withholding some footage on privacy grounds. Still, public interest in those recordings is likely to intensify, as wearable cameras capture more and more of what police officers see every day.

Martin Kaste, NPR News, Seattle. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.