Salt Lake City Police Dept. Makes The Move To 'Always-On' Eyecams (Techdirt)
Thursday November 29th, 2012
In the beginning, there were dashcams. Cops utilized these to provide Fox's primetime programmers with glorious footage of high speed pursuits and the occasional drunk shirtless man falling down. It provided a record of traffic stops and PIT maneuvers, but the downside was that it failed to capture anything out of range of the windshield. Sometimes, given inter-departmental meddling, the footage showed nothing at all or ceased to exist.
Then, suddenly, everyone had a camera. Nearly every citizen with a cell phone was able to shoot credible (if shaky) footage of law enforcement events as they unfolded, rather than how they were "recalled" during depositions and courtroom appearances. This turn of events caused some consternation among some members of the law enforcement community, who felt that recorded observation was a one-way street and that street had the PD's name all over it. While it was tougher to make unwanted footage cease to exist, it was not altogether impossible.
Now, the next wave of law enforcement-related camera technology is being put into use: always-on "eyecam." Salt Lake City is rolling out new line of eye accessories for its force, becoming the first police department in the state to do so.
The Taser AXON Flex on-officer system is a small, light-weight camera with 14 hours of a battery life that an officer clips to an item like a headband or sunglasses so it can record whatever that officer is seeing or doing. As the use of these cameras become more widespread, hearing a police officer offer to "fire up the Taser" may no longer cause certain citizens to instinctively curl into the fetal position. In fact, there's an (admittedly small) chance that these new cameras will keep unnecessary force to a minimum and provide useful documentation for use in investigations, court cases, etc.
Nationally, only about 2,000 units of the on-officer system are in the field, and Salt Lake City would be the first department in Utah to use the technology, said Rick Smith, Taser founder and CEO, who attended the presentation.
"It really improves our ability to be professional and document events as they occur," (Police Chief Chris) Burbank said. "Imagine being able to capture the emotion." More transparency is a good idea, but much like any recording device, it's only as trustworthy as its operator -- and those who control use of the footage. Burbank mentions that the camera has already cleared a Salt Lake City officer accused of "behaving unprofessionally" at a traffic stop. This is all well and good, but there needs to be a serious effort made to curb the tendency to turn an "always-on" camera into a very selective accomplice.
Smith said any use of force is inherently high risk and controversial.
He said there are often differing accounts of what led an officer to use force in a particular situation and equipping them with cameras will help with investigations and retroactive reviews of decisions that were made, he said.
"It holds everybody accountable," Smith said.
The cameras run continuously, but an officer is responsible for activating and deactivating the device. That means the department will have to set strict guidelines about camera use and making sure the cameras aren't being shut off, Burbank acknowledged. The first step might be to change "guidelines" to "rules," so there's no grey areas surrounding the specifics of camera usage. This is not to say there's little potential for an upside, though. In fact, more law enforcement agencies should look into equipping themselves with something like this, with the caveat being that the resulting footage is treated as an "impartial record" rather than "police property." Leaving the on/off switch in control of the officer wearing the camera is both unavoidable and prone to abuse by those who would rather hide certain actions and activities. And as long as law enforcement members are interacting with the public using "always-on" cameras, there really can't be any further complaints about citizens responding in kind. The camera may be an impartial observer, but the operator very rarely is. If transparency is Burbank's ultimate aim, let's hope the guideline process is opened up for public comment.