Tiny Uniform Cams Next Big Thing in Policing

8:02 AM, May 7, 2013   |    comments
Former city of Cincinnati Police Chief Tom Streicher talks to police chiefs, officers and safety administrators about the benefits of officer-worn video cameras at a seminar by Taser international in Sharonville, Ohio, on Tuesday, April 9, 2013. (Photo: Glenn Hartong, The Cincinnati Enquirer)
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Janice Morse, The Cincinnati Enquirer

CINCINNATI -- Just as "cruiser cams" did, tiny cameras worn on officers' uniforms can make a big difference in police work -- if public safety agencies can afford the pricey little gadgets.

Cincinnati's former police chief, Thomas Streicher, calls the devices "the next giant step in the evolution of policing." Some models are as small as a cigarette lighter and can be worn on sunglasses, caps or lapels.

"Five years from now, I can't imagine being in this field and not having this equipment," said Streicher, now a public-safety consultant.

But the cameras cost more than some shrinking police budgets can bear.

High-end versions can cost $1,000 per officer, plus data-storage fees. Less-expensive units run as little as $100 or so.

But Streicher's convinced that the value of recording every police-citizen interaction far outweighs the cost.

"Identifying, collecting and preserving the best evidence about every encounter between the police officer and the community is a duty. It's an ethical, legal and moral responsibility," Streicher said. "You can't afford not to have it."

Ensuring that justice is served is the main reason to buy the cameras, says Delhi Police Chief Jim Howarth, who listened to an April 9 presentation Streicher made about the body cams .

Howarth, president of the Hamilton County Association of Chiefs of Police, says so far body cams haven't yet become a topic of discussion. He suspects that's because of budget constraints.

But after Streicher's seminar, "it's more on my radar now," he said.

"The videos don't lie," Howarth said. "The biggest positive would be to see any incident through the eyes of the officer."

In fact, the units could save money in the long run, Streicher contends.

Officers and citizens tend to treat each other better if they know they're being videotaped, studies have shown. After one year with the body cameras, police in Rialto, Calif., saw an 88 percent drop in complaints against officers -- and a 59 percent drop in use-of-force instances.

Such evidence suggests video technology can cut not only the number of lawsuits filed against police but any settlements paid out as well, Streicher said.

And if courts allow videos to replace officer testimony in some cases, that could cut overtime costs. In Cincinnati, as much as 65 percent of overtime comes from "officers sitting in court waiting for a case to be called," Streicher said, amounting to $4.5 million a year.

Despite the advantages, Streicher and other advocates concede that widespread acceptance of the body cams could take time -- and will require navigation of thorny legal, technical and practical issues.

Scott Greenwood, attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, predicts that the tiny cameras will "be another disruptive technology when it comes to policing and enhancing accountability."

Nearly two decades ago, when dashboard-mounted cruiser cameras, or "dash cams," began popping up in police agencies across the nation, rank-and-file officers bristled, Greenwood said. "They called them 'indict-a-cams' because they thought they were going to be used to play 'Big Brother' to monitor what officers were doing," Greenwood said.

What happened instead: "Officers realized that dash cams usually supported what officers said was going on. And they vindicated them sometimes, when people would make false allegations about misconduct or discourtesy. So there was a sea change in opinion from line officers in acceptance of those cameras," he said.

The shift took a few years.

Since then, most Americans have equipped themselves with cellphones that take photographs and videos. "We know now that these devices are everywhere," Greenwood said, "and for better or worse, that's the reality."

As for officers being outfitted with body cams, "there are mostly positives," he said, "because we know most of what happens in policing isn't in front of a cruiser, and there might not be a better witness than the video camera."

The biggest concerns surround privacy, he said, because officers would be shooting videos inside people's homes. And safeguards would need to be in place to make sure that images aren't misused.

"You don't want these videos to be uploaded to YouTube," Greenwood said.

In Covington, police started using lapel cameras in 2011, thanks to a $10,000 donation from a businessman.

Police Chief Spike Jones is a fan -- sort of.

"The cameras, when they work, are wonderful," Jones said. "Unfortunately, the version that was purchased a number of years ago didn't turn out to be the rugged model we'd hoped it would be."

The units were "very fragile," he said, and "very susceptible to the effects of the weather."

"If you get in a foot pursuit and they fall off or they get wet, that's it," Jones said, adding that he's trying to buy upgraded models to equip his 102-officer force.

"The officers themselves want them; they're asking for them," he said.

Contributing: Enquirer reporter Terry DeMio


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