Officer Huy Nguyen shows a video camera worn by some officers in Oakland, Calif. Oakland and dozens of other police departments across the country are equipping officers with tiny body cameras to record anything from a traffic stop to a violent crime in progress.
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."
Heidi Traverso, director of business development at Vievu in Seattle, holds the company's pager-sized video camera, designed to be worn on a police officer's uniform. The officer activates the camera by sliding open the protective cover. It can record for up to four hours.
Heidi Traverso, director of business development at Vievu in Seattle, holds the company's pager-sized video camera, designed to be worn on a police officer's uniform. The officer activates the camera by sliding open the protective cover. It can record for up to four hours. Martin Kaste/NPR
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.