Police officers nationwide, engaging a smartphone-happy public eager to catalog every potential misstep and post it on YouTube, are donning new accessories — body-mounted video cameras.
The lightweight devices that attach to an officer’s sunglasses, hat or uniform seem to be defusing some sticky situations before they arise.
“People tend to behave better when they are on video,” said New Carrollton Police Chief David Rice, whose 17-member department has used body-mounted cameras for about a year. He said the effect can be seen among both officers and civilians.
“We’re not getting as much combativeness from people. In that respect, it has worked very well,” he said.
The Laurel Police Department, which is testing cameras and will deploy them in coming weeks, is among three municipal agencies in Prince George’s County using the cameras both in an effort to protect their own officers from false complaints and to better document evidence for criminal cases.
“I think every agency is concerned with complaints and wants to make sure their officers are compliant with their policies and procedures,” said Laurel Police Deputy Chief James Brooks, explaining one of the benefits of the cameras. “That way you don’t have the citizen’s word versus the officer’s word.”
Camera vendors report that thousands of departments across the country, from Cleveland to Oakland, Calif., have begun to record interactions using body-mounted cameras that go well beyond the limited scope of the more widely popular dashboard cameras used in police cruisers.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, which supported the use of dashboard cameras by police as a means to prevent racial profiling during traffic stops, said the cameras could provide further protections for residents — as long as they are used correctly.
“I do think these cameras serve a very important purpose both to protect the public and to protect police,” said David Rocah, staff attorney for the ACLU of Maryland. “But the officers don’t always turn them on.”
In California, for example, a standoff last year between Oakland police and Occupy Oakland protesters resulted in an investigation of camera-wearing officers’ actions after photos and video surfaced which showed several officers involved in crowd control efforts whose cameras were not recording, according to the East Bay Express.
The use of body-mounted cameras in Maryland also raises questions about the legality of the recordings, Mr. Rocah said. Maryland is one of several states that requires consent by parties before a legal audio recording can be made. An exception had to be specifically written into Maryland law in order to allow recordings from police dashboard cameras, and no such exemption has been made for body-mounted cameras, Mr. Rocah said.
“We think they can be very useful,” Mr. Rocah said. “Whether they are OK, is a little bit ambiguous.”
The notion of officers recording all interactions with civilians also has raised concern over privacy issues, such as when officers enter a person’s home. Laurel, which with 64 officers is believed to be the largest police department in the region to use body-mounted cameras, is still reviewing guidelines for the use of the cameras.
New Carrollton officers are required to inform anyone they stop that they are being recorded, Chief Rice said. The department hasn’t had any problems arise from videotaping thus far. Chief Rice said he intends to phase out the department’s dashboard cameras and replace them with the body-mounted cameras.
New Carrollton spent about $600 per camera, while Laurel officials estimated their cameras cost about $2,000 apiece.
The Cheverly Police Department purchased eight cameras last month, officials said.
“Using such technologies could become a practice in large or small agencies, especially state police agencies who have lots of interaction with motorists,” said Cynthia Lum, director of the Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy at George Mason University.
But she pointed out that objections from unions or citizens, as well as the simple cost of outfitting large departments, might preclude the technology from being adopted more widely.
“Larger agencies could have less resources to spend on this type of technology and may be more focused on core technologies such as improving information technologies and records management or upgrading radio or in-car computing technology,” Ms. Lum said.
Supervisors regularly review footage from officers’ cameras, giving them an opportunity to see where officers could benefit from additional training as well, Chief Rice said.
Additionally, the recording of officers’ interactions headed off at least one police complaint.
“We had one person make a claim and we explained to them that we would check the video on the officer’s interaction. When they heard we had video, they changed their mind and they didn’t want to complain,” Chief Rice said.