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High-Tech NYPD Is Body Camera Shy, As Departments Across Country Embrace Them

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Monday, September 23 2013

Taser's Axon Flex cameras are the high-end ones that can fit onto glasses Image: Taser

When a federal judge ruled in August that New York City's stop-and-frisk policy was unconstitutional, she also ordered that policemen wear body cameras in the precincts most vulnerable to stop-and-frisk. Mayor Michael Bloomberg has called the prospect of implementing this order "a nightmare" and has filed an appeal. Yet hundreds of police departments around the country are implementing such camera systems as they're sold on the idea that the footage will exonerate officers and help them to resolve complaints and lawsuits against officers more efficiently.

"It's enormously helpful," Oakland Police Department's Interim Assistant Chief Paul Figueroa told techPresident. "It's such a better tool than in the past when it's one person's word against another, and you spend time trying to collect the evidence. When you're able to go to the video and see what's occurred, it makes it much easier to go in and look at it, and it just saves so much investigative time, all the way around as to whether misconduct took place or not."

As part of her August ruling against the constitutionality of the Bloomberg administration's stop-and-frisk policy, US. District Court Judge Shira Scheindlin ordered the NYPD to undertake a one-year pilot program that requires just one camera in each of the precincts with the most stops in the city's five boroughs.

Under the court order, the monitor overseeing the reforms to the NYPD's policy is supposed to implement the parameters and deployment of the program, and measure its success in "reducing unconstitutional stops and frisks."

For its part, Oakland's deployment of around 500 cameras for its 618 officers is one of the largest in the nation. The department uses a chest-mounted camera that's the size of a pager from VieVu, a Seattle-based company founded by a former officer from its police department.

Oakland's department has a powerful interest in both trying to improve its officers' behaviors and resolving the veracity of the complaints against them quickly and efficiently. As a local television news investigation pointed out in 2011, the city's police department has had to pay out $57 million to deal with lawsuits alleging police misconduct in the past 10 years.

The Oakland PD itself has been monitored for the past decade by a federal judge under a consent decree after it was sued in a class action for the alleged conduct of four of its officers, who were accused of beating up and falsely arresting residents of West Oakland.

Figueroa's enthusiasm for body-worn cameras is not unusual for an increasing number of police around the country.

Officers who haven't experienced the cameras are generally suspicious of the idea, but once they've used it for some time, they don't want to part with them, said James (Chips) K. Stewart, director of public safety and security for CNA Analysis and Solutions, a public policy research firm in Alexandria, Va. Stewart, a former director of the National Institute of Justice and former chief detective of the Oakland PD, was one of the expert witnesses for the NYPD in the stop-and-frisk case. When the judge asked him whether a pilot program would be warranted during the trial, he recommended it.

The key to their acceptance is that the officers using the systems only turn the cameras on when they're conducting law enforcement operations, and not constantly being surveilled live, for example, in their squad cars or during any routine business that doesn't involve interactions with the public.

The NYPD's antipathy for the pilot program versus other smaller police departments' clamor for the cameras reflects a dearth of extensive and rigorous research on who really benefits from these cameras other than the companies selling them. The difference may also reflect the dynamics of implementing and managing video recording policy and management of footage for a department of 35,000 police officers in New York City. Rialto, the city that conducted the study that Scheindlin cited in her stop-and- frisk opinion, has 115 sworn officers.

The financial cost and task of managing the infrastructure associated with all those officers, and deciding when their interactions with the millions of people in New York should be recorded would not be trivial, said Jeremy Carter, an assistant professor at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.

Yet "several chiefs say the expense is completely justified because all you have to do was not lose a single lawsuit for wrongful injury or false arrest, or any of those things, and you've paid for the system," CNA's Stewart said about a recent meeting of about 200-250 police chiefs and attorneys on this issue of body-mounted camera policy.

The meeting was organized by the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) in Washington, D.C. and took place last week. It focused on building consensus between stakeholders around policy issues related to on-body cameras. Its staff did not return calls and e-mails for more information about the details of the meeting.

Stewart's firm has just been awarded two grants to design studies to examine the impact of such body cameras on the interactions between police and the public. One of the studies, funded by the Justice Department, will examine the use of the 400 cameras in Las Vegas. The other study will look at the use of VieVu and Taser Flex body cameras used by police in Phoenix, Arizona. That study is being funded by the Bureau of Justice Assistance.

Other than the widely-cited study conducted in Rialto, California that reported an 88 percent plunge in complaints filed against the police department during a randomized study on their deployment, "the interesting thing is that nobody has done a real, large-scale research study on the effect of cameras on whether it reduces injuries, complaints, and whether the people wearing them feel comfortable wearing them," Stewart said in an interview. "The technology is ahead of the policy at this point."

There are no generalized guidelines on issues such as when exactly the cameras should be turned on, whether police should verbally inform citizens that they're being recorded, under what conditions officers should have access to the footage, and whether citizens have a right to ask for the cameras to be turned off.

Nevertheless, press releases on new police departments ordering the cameras are shooting forth from two of the market leading companies Vievu and Taser on a regular basis. Some of these questions might be addressed by the evolution of the technologies themselves. Steve Tuttle, a spokesman for Taser, for example, said that the company is coming out with a version of its software that will allow police departments to "redact" certain portions of footage by blurring them out. And the digital footage holds up to industry-required standards of court-admissible evidence because each frame is tagged to ensure that it can't be tampered with.

For its part, Oakland has developed a general set of policies. Apart from community meetings, the rules require police to turn the cameras on during any encounters with the public, and not to switch them off until the end of those encounters. The officers don't have to obtain consent to record if they're in a public place or even inside a home or building if they're "lawfully present." They're also allowed to view the footage of their own video at the end of their shifts. However, they have to provide a reason for viewing the footage in the police computer system. The files are also available to the public, unless there's an ongoing investigation involved, and they're stored on local servers and kept for a minimum of five years.

The Major Cities Chiefs, a group of police chiefs from the biggest cities in the U.S. and Canada, is working on developing guidelines too.

The Oakland PD's policies have been disputed. For example, almost exactly two years ago, one of its officers captured his own act of fatally shooting a suspect that he was chasing down.

An American Civil Liberties Union lawyer told the San Francisco Chronicle later that the officer shouldn't have been allowed to review the footage of the event before talking to investigators because it might help him to fabricate his responses. Officials ultimately decided that he was allowed to.

But on a broader level, the ACLU has come out in favor of the use of the body cameras.

"My own reaction is that it's a good idea," said Arthur Spitzer, legal director for a local Washington D.C. branch office of the ACLU. "Police should behave better when on camera, and it should provide some neutral evidence. The only thing I would say is that the police shouldn't be able to turn the camera on and off and tamper with it, but once that's resolved, I don't see a problem with it."

As a general matter, from the outside, it's difficult to ascertain whether the cameras have had any impact on the quality of the interactions between the Oakland PD and the public. Oakland isn't the best poster child for the notion of cameras improving police-public interactions -- at least on an anecdotal basis: The city recently settled a $1.17 million lawsuit filed against the police department on behalf of a group of Occupy protestors who were hurt by the police' crowd control tactics. It's still dealing with another lawsuit launched by Scott Olsen, a veteran and a protestor who was struck in the head by a crowd-control device called a beanbag, and then tear gassed. Of course, protestors captured all of this on video and posted it to YouTube.

The Oakland PD uploaded 139 of its own video clips of body-mounted camera footage of the protests -- and their aftermath -- onto the Web, but they didn't do much to counter much of the sensational footage captured by citizens during the confrontations with the police. Many of the police body-camera clips, however, reveal the intensity of protestors' verbal assaults against the police as the cameras captured individuals screaming directly at officers. Several clips show Occupy protestors either swearing and cursing officers out, or lecturing them about their First Amendment rights.

Scheindlin didn't specify a timetable for the implementation of the pilot program in New York, but it might have to start sooner than later.

Bloomberg sought to delay the implementation of Scheindlin's order while his appeal pended but she denied his request. A federal appeals court on Thursday also rejected Bloomberg's application for a speedy review of his appeal.