Wearable video/audio cameras for police officers are:

a)    the technological wave of the future for California law enforcement.
b)    an interesting tool whose dissemination is limited by city fiscal restraints.

It’s A or B and most likely A and B.

The supervisors who oversee their use like the way wearable cameras help cops document incidents and prevent unruly behavior from escalating.

As San Diego concludes several months of a test of ear-mounted camera units (and has no plans in the near term to purchase sets), several departments in South and East San Francisco Bay  – in and around Silicon Valley – are pioneering cameras that clip to the uniform.

“It’s done a lot for us so far,” said Campbell Police Capt. Charley Adams.

“We don’t want to keep it a secret,” Adams added. “We let them know we’re taping it. That way there are no false accusations on either side. It improves everyone’s behavior.”
Campbell purchased 31 camera units and began using them in June.

The city has a policy for the use of recording devices that states officers “shall make every effort to record all enforcement contacts, such as arrests or citations.” The policy states procedures for access to the stored video files. (Read in full here)

On Aug. 31, 10 officers in San Diego’s Mid-City Division concluded months of Beta testing (giving feedback on software and hardware glitches before wide release of a product) for Taser International, manufacturer of the AXON head-mounted camera unit.

“It went well,” said Assistant Chief Bob Kanaski. “There’s nothing we can say that’s detrimental. The video quality is good. It’s great video during nighttime. If there’s one thing, it’s that officers had to get used to the headgear holding the camera in place.”

The AXON system includes a video display unit clipped to the belt, a microphone that attaches to the lapel and a videocam mounted along the temple that looks like a Bluetooth device.

Over the summer, San Diego officers discussed ideas for modifications with Taser execs and with other companies to modify police uniforms with more convenient pockets to hold units.
This system is more expensive than others that use a more unobtrusive camera that clips to the uniform, Kanaski said. Extra cost covers longer battery life and the use of a third-party computer server that stores video images and guarantees evidence security, he said.
Police need to align department philosophies and public perception for the new technology.

They need to clearly communicate expectations of the circumstances when cameras are turned on and digital records are saved, and take measures to avoid the public’s “sense of mistrust,” Kanaski said.

“We’re not looking at buying any outfits for ourselves, not because we didn’t like the product, but because of budgets being what they are now,” Kanaski said. “Our funding priority now is officers (in the field).”  

Perhaps in the long term, he said, San Diego might look at such a purchase or seek funding through a grant application to the federal Department of Homeland Security.
San Diego and San Jose were the most populous of five cities in the nation where police did Beta testing of the AXON system. San Jose reported positive results. (See here)

Union City tested camera units that clip to the uniform and liked them well enough to buy 85 units at a cost of nearly $150,000 to equip all officers, plus some spare units, and computer capacity to download and store images.

At the same time, the Alameda County city looked at car-mounted units but concluded that those only record about 10 percent of what officers are doing – missing the incidents where officers or suspects walk away from the car, down the street or into an alley, said Lt. Kelly Musgrove.

Union City had an incident in which a citizen complained about police rudeness. Musgrove reviewed the video with the complainant.

“The one making the accusation was the one cussing and swearing at the officers,” he said. “Our officers were like, ‘Calm down.'”

The complainant, after seeing the video, said, “Oh, never mind,” and left, Musgrove said.

The videos can be used for training new officers, especially for showing two different angles or perspectives on the same incident, Musgrove said.

“You’ve got to get a little bit of buy-in from your 25-plus veterans,” Musgrove said. “This is change. It is the future and it is here.”

The audio is helpful for hearing a tone of voice when a suspect says something, “spontaneously or under Miranda,” Musgrove said. The video can illuminate details at a crime scene or the appearance of a domestic violence victim in the immediate aftermath.

The Union City setup is marketed by a Seattle company called Vievu, which has had talks with Seattle police about trying wearable cameras. Vievu markets its system for its simplicity of use, liability protection for police and efficiency of documentation.

The company’s Web site quotes an undercover officer from California: “We recorded a traffic stop that led to a methamphetamine-for-sale arrest. The suspect initially told detectives it was not her car, purse or drugs. Once she was told the whole stop and her conversations were all video recorded and her attorney saw the supplemental report to that effect, she pleaded guilty and took the offered deal at the preliminary hearing, thus saving court time, trial, OT, etc.”

In Brentwood, Contra Costa County, three traffic officers are using Vievu cameras clipped to their uniforms, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. Oakland police, who visited Union City police to see the wearable units, have been trying about 20 cameras.

The Los Gatos-Monte Sereno police have borrowed two cameras from their neighbors in Campbell. “We’re trying them out to see if it’s a program we would want to institute department-wide,” said Los Gatos-Monte Sereno Sgt. Kerry Harris.

Campbell bought 31 camera units for about $4,000 of city money plus a $15,000 grant from the Association of Bay Area Governments, said Capt. Charley Adams. There was also about $2,000 in expenditures to improve the department’s digital storage.

Adams said he suspects police use will accelerate as the technology improves and the cost per unit goes down, and video quality and storage media improve.

Police incidents frequently produce multiple interpretations and perspectives. Cameras from the officers’ viewpoint are a key tool in a world in which private citizens are often flipping open smart-phone cameras to record enforcement incidents, said Campbell Sgt. Rich Shipman.

“Officers have the ability when dealing with somebody on the streets who is giving officers some lip to say that everything is being recorded,” said Shipman. “Often that will calm down the subject and prevent anything else from going on.”