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Published: Saturday, 8/23/2014 - Updated: 2 months ago

Police cameras gaining use but technology raises concerns about privacy

NEW YORK TIMES
New police cameras have raised questions about privacy. New police cameras have raised questions about privacy.
BLADE ILLUSTRATION/ TOM FISHER Enlarge

Michael Brown, the unarmed teenager who was shot during an encounter with police in Ferguson, Mo., on Aug. 9, was recorded by a convenience store surveillance camera a few minutes before he was killed, according to police. Then, just after he died, a picture of his body was snapped by a Twitter user who claims to have seen the shooting.

Yet, so far, no photograph has emerged to document exactly what happened in between those photos, during Brown’s fatal encounter with Darren Wilson, the Ferguson police officer who, the authorities said, shot him.

The world is on track to capture nearly 1 trillion photographs in 2014; yet with all those cameras everywhere, that crucial moment went unsnapped.

Perhaps one day that won’t be possible. Police departments and their equipment suppliers are outfitting officers with on-body cameras that promise to eliminate the photographic void we saw in Ferguson.

The cameras, which police wear on their chests or sunglasses, allow them to record all of their encounters with suspects and residents. The videos are stored in a tamper-proof vault online, where they can be examined during legal proceedings or when questions arise regarding police officers’ conduct.

Body-mounted police cameras are in their infancy, but they’re built on tech trends long in the making, including the miniaturization of cameras and the rapid decline in prices of online storage that has given consumers things like Dropcam and Google Glass.

But the technology raises privacy concerns for the police and the public, and there are no national guidelines for how they should be used. The crucial questions of when police should begin recording their work and who gets to decide which encounters should be recorded are still being worked out.

Toledo police motorcycle officers wear body cams, while patrol cars are equipped with cameras, Sgt. Joe Heffernan said. Those in-car cams are activated automatically whenever the vehicle’s overhead lights are turned on. Officers also wear body microphones that they can use to activate the cameras in the cars.

“As technology comes around, we’re constantly exploring the newest and latest technology,” Sergeant Heffernan said. “We’ll often time do test runs with equipment to see whether it will work with what we do on a daily basis, and the big question is is it cost effective.’’

The primary reason for a department to use cameras is “to document what is going on,” Sergeant Heffernan said. “As the officers are conducting business, especially traffic stops, or any kind of citizen contact, if we can record it we will. It has saved a lot of officers from false complaints.”

Officers figure they’re being recorded much of the time anyway, Sergeant Heffernan said. Many people have smart phones that can act as video recorders.

Still, the cameras have been embraced by civil libertarians, including the American Civil Liberties Union, and they’ve been snapped up by hundreds of police departments across the country. Though police unions were once ardently against these systems, much of the resistance has faded. In a few small studies, on-body cameras have been shown to significantly reduce complaints against officers as well as episodes in which officers use force. Consequently, they often pay for themselves by reducing the cost of litigation.

“When we first introduced this a few years ago, there was skepticism,” said Rick Smith, the chief executive of Taser International, whose Axon line of body cameras has been purchased by more than 1,200 police agencies in the United States. “Now, every police officer knows that they’re being recorded by someone on a smartphone — and every police chief I talk to says it’s not a matter of if, but when, they’ll be using on-body cameras.”

In 2012, Taser began selling its most advanced body camera, the Axon Flex, which can be clipped to an officer’s sunglasses, hat, helmet, or epaulets. The Flex, which sells for $599 a unit, captures a wide-angle view that is close to what an officer sees while on patrol. Other cameras, including those made by Vievu, Taser’s largest competitor, clip to an officer’s shirt or belt.

Throughout an officer’s shift, Taser’s camera is constantly recording what it sees. But most of its images are kept in a 30-second buffer, after which they’re discarded. The unit begins saving longer segments of video — and begins capturing audio — only when an officer double-taps a control switch.

The 30-second buffer is a way of allowing officers to essentially record events that began in the past. “Say the officer sees someone run a red light — obviously the officer didn’t know that was going to happen,” Mr. Smith said. “But once he starts recording, we go back and grab that 30 seconds before that.”

The buffer includes just video, not audio, which is saved after the officer hits Record. The video-only buffer is meant to protect officers’ privacy.

Taser’s Axon cameras are paired with the company’s online storage service, evidence.com, for which police departments pay a monthly fee of $15 to $55 per officer, depending on how much storage space they use.

At the end of each shift, an officer plugs his camera into a charging dock, and all his videos are uploaded to evidence.com. Police departments determine how long videos are retained; often retention times are related to the statute of limitations for the episodes the videos depict. Departments also set policies on who can watch the videos, and evidence.com keeps an audit trail of all views.

One question about the deployment of on-body cameras concerns which encounters should be recorded, and when.

Scott Greenwood, a civil rights lawyer who focuses on police misconduct and who also consults with police departments considering deploying camera systems, recommends that police adopt a policy requiring officers to record nearly all contacts with people.

“It’s most protective of the officer, of the members of the public, and of the agency if you record all of them and don’t allow officers discretion to decide which things to record and which not to record,” he said.

Mr. Greenwood said he has seen instances in which officers have deliberately tried to obscure a camera’s field of view before approaching a civilian. As a result, he encourages departments to construe an officer’s failure to record an encounter in which misconduct is later claimed as a negative strike in any proceedings against the officer. To ensure civilian privacy, Mr. Greenwood suggests that police departments exempt some videos captured in private homes from public-records requests.

Cameras have also helped train new police and confront problem officers. And by shedding light on encounters between police and private citizens, Taser argues that cameras can do more than simply resolve individual disputes.

“This helps us address the whole relationship between a police department and their community,” Smith said. “When that relationship gets off, really bad things happen.”



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