- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 13, 2008

The D.C. Council concluded its inquiry Wednesday into whether to place cameras on police weapons but prospects for a vote on the estimated $4 million plan are uncertain amid police opposition and a $131 million budget gap.

A top Metropolitan Police Department internal affairs officer testified last week against the program to equip about 4,000 police weapons with miniature cameras that record video and sound when a gun is drawn. The 5-ounce “PistolCams” emit a bright red laser along the gun’s line of fire within two seconds of the weapon being drawn.

But council member Yvette Alexander, Ward 7 Democrat and member of the Committee on Public Safety and Judiciary, where the bill currently rests, says that the cameras will be instrumental in investigating cases of excessive force.

“When it comes to investigations, a camera would capture a lot more than no camera at all,” she said.

The department says that the cameras will not be helpful in probing the use of force.

“We believe that there will be very limited circumstances where a gun camera will actually prove useful to the investigation of the use of force,” said Peter Newsham, assistant chief of Internal Affairs for the Metropolitan Police.

Mr. Newsham said the two-second delay between when the gun is drawn and when the camera begins recording would prevent the camera from capturing the most important seconds of a police shooting.

“Two seconds is a great deal of time when considered in the context of a police shooting, a two-second delay may prevent the camera from capturing valuable information,” he said.

Concerns about the delay can be worked out with police, said council member Harry Thomas Jr., the Ward 5 Democrat who introduced the bill in May.

“Missing two seconds of evidence is bad, but having no evidence is worse,” he said.

Miss Alexander said eyewitness accounts can help fill the two-second void in many cases.

The bill will have to be reintroduced next year if the council doesn’t vote on it by Dec. 16, the end of the current session.

There is currently no scheduled committee vote on the bill, and there are concerns that the bill will be buried under more pressing budget matters.

Council member Phil Mendelson, an at-large Democrat who heads the council’s Committee on Public Safety, has estimated that the plan will cost $4 million.

To fill the $131 million budget gap, D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty has proposed freezing or eliminating vacant jobs and has revived a controversial D.C. Lottery contract rebidding plan that has faced council opposition in the past.

Miss Alexander said it is the goal of the council to vote on as many bills as possible from mid-November to the end of the legislative session.

“There’s 18 to 20 bills on our committee alone that we haven’t voted on yet, and I expect we will vote on them all before the session ends,” she said.

Similar cameras were tested successfully and are currently being implemented in Orange County, New York. Mr. Newsham noted that Orange County has a much smaller police department than the District, but said the Metropolitan Police Department will take Orange County’s experience into consideration.

Kristopher Baumann, a D.C. police officer for the last six years and head of the D.C. police union, agrees with the department.

“People have to understand that most shootings occur within seconds, so it’s very unlikely the cameras will be able to see what initiated a shooting,” he said.

Mr. Newsham said that each camera costs $700 and the cost of equipping the cameras will be close to $3 million.

“It’s unproven, untested, and very expensive technology, and weighting the cost versus the value it will have very little impact on investigations,” he said.

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