As More Police Wear Cameras, Policy Questions Arise Police departments are starting to equip officers with video cameras on their uniforms. It's supposed to protect both cops and the public, and clarify he-said-she-said situations. But the technology is raising a number of questions and concerns about privacy and who has access to the videos.

As More Police Wear Cameras, Policy Questions Arise

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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.


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.


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.



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.



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



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.


KASTE: It can get pretty forensic.



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.

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