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The traditional police uniform is loaded down with all the gear a law enforcer could need at a moment’s notice: handcuffs, memo book, flashlight, mace, walkie-talkie, an expandable baton.
You might not have heard of the newest accessory: a camera. Across the United States, thousands of police officers have begun using body-worn cameras to record everything from traffic stops to foot chases. An apparent expansion in government surveillance might not sound warranted, but in this case, the outcome could ultimately be good for officers and citizens alike.
Police officers wear the cameras on their chests. The most popular model is made by Vievu (VEE-view), a company founded by a former SWAT team member. Vievu’s color video camera is a soap bar–sized device that is waterproof and tamperproof, and costs $900. To activate the recording function, an officer slides a cover, revealing a green label surrounding a lens. Remember that green label: Since there’s no light on the front of the camera, it’s a tipoff the device is in recording mode.
“That green backing definitely contrasts with our dark blue uniforms,” says Michael Kurtenbach, a precinct commander at the Phoenix Police Department, which has been using 56 Vievu cameras since April. Although neither the department nor Arizona requires officers to tell citizens they’re being recorded, he says, “We haven’t tried to hide it at all.” Legally, police are not obligated to inform a resident about the camera in at least 38 states.
The cameras can act as an additional witness when an officer is falsely accused. Kurtenbach told me one camera resolved a case in Phoenix where an unlicensed driver accused a police officer of using racial slurs and inappropriate force: “Upon reviewing the video it was clear that none of the behavior that was alleged occurred.”
In another case, Phoenix officers received a call that a seemingly deranged man was running around in the middle of traffic. When they arrived, the officers handcuffed the man and observed the symptoms of “excited delirium,” a drug-associated manic state that sometimes results in death. “They moved him to the side of the road in the shade. … They got him water, they kept him upright, they did everything that they could. Ultimately he died,” Kurtenbach said. A death in police custody normally results in a major investigation, but the camera footage proved the officers took appropriate actions that day.
The recordings can cut both ways, of course: If an officer behaves badly, that would show up on footage as well. Within a courtroom, such evidence would work to the advantage of a citizen who may have been mistreated. In the end, the widespread use of body-worn cameras could prompt both citizens and police to exercise added restraint.
In August a federal judge ordered changes to the New York Police Department’s policy of stopping and frisking residents who look suspicious. She claimed the practice was unconstitutional and indirectly targeted minorities. Although the judge didn’t completely nix stop-and-frisk, she ordered the police department to begin a pilot program of body-worn cameras, which she said would “solve a lot of problems. … The officer would be aware he’s on tape.”