Kempner: Police body cameras come with complications

It used to be that police had to worry about being out-gunned. Now, they are being out-videoed.

Increasingly there’s a push to outfit officers with always-on body cameras that, in theory, will help with their protection … and ours.

Except, the roll-out isn’t turning out to be as easy or quick as you might expect.

It’s partly a money problem, I’m told by an executive of Utility Inc., a 16-year-old Decatur-based company that jumped into the body-camera business last year and expects the systems to account for half its sales this year.

It’s also a big technical and storage undertaking, part of “the dirty little secret about the body camera industry,” Utility’s Chris Lindenau said.

I know that seems odd given that posting video on YouTube or Facebook is easier and quicker than brushing your teeth.

Yet there may be little or no video from officers’ body cameras in the wake of high-profile police shootings in Baton Rouge and Minnesota. In Louisiana, cameras worn by two officers became dislodged during the incident, a police spokesperson was quoted as saying. That’s not the kind of thing that builds public trust.

In Minnesota, the officers reportedly weren’t issued body cameras.

So the only footage we all watched was from others on the scenes. The world witnessed the disturbing deaths of two black men, raising new questions about whether spur-of-the-moment actions by police were right.

Most officers in major cities apparently still don’t have body cameras.

“At this juncture there is experimentation going on more than there is full implementation,” said Frank Straub, who directs strategic studies for the Police Foundation, a D.C.-based nonprofit.

Meanwhile, new wrinkles keep popping up.

On Monday, North Carolina’s governor signed into law new restrictions on public access to body camera and dashboard footage. Police will have surprisingly wide latitude to decide whether to release videos to people who are recorded. Otherwise, a court order would be needed to have footage released. Gov. Pat McCrory said the law will “protect our law enforcement and gain public trust,” which North Carolina’s ACLU isn’t buying.

We’ll see how limits like that affect the body camera world.

For now, vendors like Utility Inc. are working on deals that could pay dividends for years. The dominant player is Taser International, which has an in with agencies that use its taser weapons.

Taser won a number of government contracts that weren’t opened for bidding from rival vendors. Utility, a far small player, has complained and sometimes sued to stop such deals. (Last month, a judge dismissed its suit against Atlanta over the city’s planned pilot program with Taser).

Big money

Police departments can shell out a few hundred dollars for each camera and related equipment. And it can cost them hundreds of dollars more for systems in cruisers to help upload giant video files and tie in with vehicle cameras.

But the big money may be in recurring monthly or annual fees to handle the storage of that deluge of digital footage, all or much of it evidence that has to be handled carefully.

A typical patrol officer produces two or three hours of video during a single shift, according to Lindenau.

Storage alone could cost the city of Atlanta $1.5 million a year, said police chief George Turner, who wants all his uniformed officers in the field to have body cameras by this time next year.

Coming up with the money isn’t the only challenge. This is tech after all.

Police departments are struggling with figuring out when to buy the ever-changing systems. They’re also wrestling with tough questions about what should be videoed and how to protect the privacy of innocent citizens.

With Utility’s BodyWorn system, police leaders can set parameters for when cameras automatically record, rather than relying on officers to push the button. It can kick on whenever a cruiser’s lights are activated and officers exit the vehicle or when the system senses an officer is running or has entered a certain area of town.

The cameras (Utility uses Motorola smartphones) can prevent officers from deleting material. Video can be automatically uploaded from the field or in a cruiser. And the system can be set to quickly blur faces and license plate numbers for videos released to the public.

The company also says the smartphones can tell if an officer is lying prone — a potential sign that they are hurt – and notify dispatchers and nearby officers.

Devilish details

Police, though, have to grapple with other limitations.

How do you keep cameras from becoming dislodged in altercations and video becoming a bouncy mess during foot chases?

Utility produces plastic holders and cases that snap and zip into pouches incorporated into the design of standard police uniforms, jackets or vests. The cameras poke out of a hole where there would normally be a button.

Utility says it has done body camera deals with Marietta, Decatur, Lilburn, Clayton County, MARTA, and Atlanta’s Department of Corrections. It also said it recently got a big order from DeKalb County.

Where there’s money, there’s a market.

Which makes me wonder whether body cameras will show up in other lines of work. Utility expects to push into areas such as firefighters and EMS. But could cameras poke into virtually any job in which there are legal liability and public contact issues?

Surgeons? Teachers? Day care workers and nursing home aides? Pilots? Bus drivers?

There’s a price for an always-recording society, where more and more facets of our jobs can be second-guessed. Because we are all flawed.

Maybe officers wearing body cameras is the right step, at least when it can be used to review a death or serious injury connected to an officer. (Just don’t be surprised to see even more of private citizens’ private lives inside their homes becoming public when officers are around. That’s a worrying unexpected consequence.)

The hope is body cameras will help us know the truth of what happened. But interpretation is in the eye of the beholder, not the camera. There will still be debates on that front, even in our increasingly videoed world.

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