Police say wearing video cameras offers protection

Sunday, July 10, 2011
Jeff Chiu ~ Associated PressOakland, Calif., police officer Huy Nguyen shows June 16, a video camera worn by officers there.

OAKLAND, Calif. -- Before hitting the streets, Oakland police officer Huy Nguyen's routine usually goes something like this:Gun ready? Check. Bulletproof vest strapped? Check.

Body camera secured? Check.

Wait, body camera?

"It feels uncomfortable when I don't have it," Nguyen said of the video camera that is smaller than a smartphone and is worn on his chest. "You can never be too safe."

Oakland and hundreds of other police departments across the country are equipping officers with tiny body cameras to record anything from a traffic stop to a hot vehicle pursuit to an unfolding violent crime. The mini cameras have even spawned a new cable reality TV series, Police POV, which uses police video from Cincinnati, Chattanooga and Fort Smith, Ark.

Whether attached to shirt lapels or small headsets, the cameras are intended to provide more transparency and security to officers on the street and to reduce the number of misconduct complaints and potential lawsuits.

"First and foremost, it protects the officers, it protects the citizens and it can help with an investigation and it shows what happened," said Steve Tidwell, executive director of the FBI National Academy Associates in Quantico, Va. "It can level the playing field, instead of getting just one or two versions. It's all there in living color, so to speak."

In Oakland, where the department is still under federal supervision because of a case in which four officers were caught planting drugs on suspects a decade ago, the cameras are like another set of eyes, said Capt. Ed Tracey.

Last year the department began a pilot program with about a dozen patrol officers wearing the VIEVU body camera, and now officials hope to equip at least 350 officers by the end of summer.

A helpful program

Tracey said the cameras are proving helpful to a budget-strapped police force that has reduced staff while covering what is still one of the country's most dangerous cities, even though overall crime has trended downward.

The cameras, which run about $125 apiece, were brought instead of purchasing video equipment for squad cars, he said, noting that the smaller devices can also be mounted on a patrol car dashboard.

Officers are required to turn on their cameras for calls including traffic stops and possible searches. They are also required to download their video within a day and they are not allowed to edit or manipulate it. The video can be stored up to five years.

Turning on the camera has become second nature, Nguyen said. "If the suspect takes off, the camera is on to capture it," he said. "

You have to train yourself to remember, 'Lights on, camera on.'"

Camera footage came in handy last year, Nguyen said, after a man complained that he and another officer were rude after pulling him over.

"We summoned a supervisor to the scene and took the man's complaint. Internal Affairs reviewed the video," he said.

"The complaint was dropped."

Police officials from Seattle and Queensland, Australia, have recently visited Oakland to check out the cameras, which are used by more than 700 departments in the United States alone, said Heidi Travero, a business development director for the Seattle-based VIEVU.

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