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Thursday, February 7, 2008

Smile, You’re on Cop Cam

posted by on February 7 at 13:58 PM

It’s been a big couple of weeks for police accountability in Seattle. The Seattle Police Officers’ Guild (SPOG) won a legal battle—for better or worse—to keep unredacted complaints out of the hands of the City Council’s police accountability review board, and Mayor Greg Nickels’ police accountability panel offered up a number of recommendations (PDF link) to improve policing in Seattle.

The city’s going to have to bargain with the police guild to implement a number of the panel’s recommendations, so while they’re at it, here’s something else they should try bargaining for:


Meet Vievu’s PVR-LE (Personal Video Recorder-Law Enforcement). It’s a lightweight, pager-sized, wearable video camera. Crazy, you say? Well, a similar system—albeit a totally awkward looking one—is being rolled out right now in the UK.

Vievu has been around for just over a month. They debuted their camera in January at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas—although they’re still working out a few kinks—but are hoping to start shipping to distributors in March. Oh, and did I mention that Vievu was founded by a bunch of local ex-cops?

Chris Myers, the company’s spokesman, left SPD in January, after 18 years on the force. He’s been around for all of the recent rumblings about accountability, and he doesn’t think cameras will be a hard sell—even though it took awhile for SPD to get cameras in all of their patrol cars. “When I first got my camera in the car, I wasn’t 100% comfortable with it,” he says. “Police work isn’t always pretty.” Still, Myers says, officers should see the cameras as a way to avoid unnecessary OPA complaints.

Indeed, when I spoke with SPOG President Rich O’Neil a few weeks ago, he pointed out that SPD’s in-car cameras have been used to exonerate officers on more than one occasion.

The cameras aren’t cheap—they’re about 700 bucks a pop for the more rugged law enforcement model, which records 4 hours of video—but this seems like a really simple way to keep both police and civilians honest.

Myers says Vievu’s been in informal talks with SPD, but when I called the department to ask about the idea of equipping officers with cameras, I was met with laughter.

RSS icon Comments


In theory, I think these are a great idea. Especially because they can be used both ways when dealing with officer-related complaints.

There are a few issues that they'll need to work through or be aware of:
1. Generally, the quality of the in-car videos is very low. So we shouldn't have unreasonably high expectations about how we can use the videos (plus, if these things are bouncing around on someone's neck, the viewer may get nauseated just watching it).
2. When will the cameras be recording? Most in-car cameras turn on when the cop turns on their emergency lights or spotlight. As Jonah's pointed out in the past, that means you miss some of the important events.
3. If the cameras are on all of the time, they'll need to address the legal issue around notifying people that they're being recorded. I know that for State Troopers who have in-car cameras, they're required to advise the person at the beginning of the contact that they're being recorded. That could be trickier with the personal cameras.

But anything that helps make police accountability more straight-forward(for all involved) is a good thing.

Posted by Gidge | February 7, 2008 2:17 PM

Good points, Gidge.

1) I don't think the quality of in-car video is all that bad, it's just a matter of getting the camera pointed in the right place. These cameras would, hypothetically , remedy the stationary camera problem.

2) The cameras turn on when the officer fiips the slide down, exposing the camera lens. It stops recording when it's closed.

3) Notification shouldn't be a problem. Officers, I believe, give notice when in-car recordings are happening. I think it's a courtesy though, and they're not required to do so, depending on the situation.

Posted by Jonah S | February 7, 2008 2:25 PM

Remember, when the cops bashed that guy repeatedly into the pavement, the cop cam didn't turn on until AFTER they had been bashing his head for quite a while - the blood was already dripping ...

Time for a citizen's initiative.

Posted by Will in Seattle | February 7, 2008 2:37 PM

You're right, the quality isn't awful. But between a stationary camera and some poor sound (those mics can pick up a lot of other sounds), they could be better. I do think these would help alleviate the problem, although I keep getting this Blair Witch Project image in my mind.

My comment regarding notification was really intertwined with the issue of when cameras turn on. RCW 9.73.090 actually requires officers to notify people. Obviously if they turn the cameras on, they can just notify them at that point. But, if they're running all of the time (and there's an argument in favor of taking it out of officer's discretion), that's when it gets trickier.

Thanks for following this issue, Jonah.

Posted by Gidge | February 7, 2008 2:53 PM

If it only records 4 hours of video, it won't be on all the time.

This device is clearly made to protect cops, not citizens. Why would a cop record themselves using excessive force?

The SPD doesn't discipline it's officers anyway.. so these seem like a waste of money to me unless they are always recording.

Posted by w7ngman | February 7, 2008 2:59 PM

I'd be really interested in a device like this that records video to a remote site over wireless or cell networks instead of on the camera so that citizens can protect themselves against SPD brutality... especially since the SPD has arrested people and erased images and video from their cameras before. (

Posted by Packratt | February 7, 2008 3:23 PM

It's not technically feasible yet... but I always liked the idea of a cop having a camera and microphone attached that was always on, recording everything that happened while he was out on patrol. The police union would hate it, of course, but the legitimate public interest of having an impartial observer to all police actions would make it worthwhile.

Posted by Greg | February 7, 2008 3:58 PM

Notification - Gidge, you are close, but RCW 9.73.090 applies to people who have been arrested. So, once in custody and removed from a public place the RCW requires the Officer to let them know that they are being recorded. The related RCWs 9.73.030 - 9.73.080 all refer to "private" conversations. If you are in a public place, especially talking to a uniformed cop it is pretty much given that anything you say or do can be documented by that Officer whether it is in writing or recorded. So I think Jonah is right, telling you that you are being recorded in a public place is a courtesy not an obligation. If you are around the cops just assume that anything you say can be used against you, just like in the movies.

Posted by Bluescott | February 7, 2008 4:05 PM

Cop Cams will become common place when juries realize that cops are as likely to lie/distort reality as everyone else. When accused criminals are found not guilty for lack of evidence after a cop saw the whole thing happen, the outcry from both the public and police will demand better evidence.

Posted by Adam | February 7, 2008 4:07 PM

Bluescott, sorry for not being clear. I was actually referring to 9.73.090(1)(c), which applies to sound recordings made via the in-car systems. The way I read that prong of the statute, it's not limited to the time of arrest, and it is a requirement (rather than a courtesy). You could imagine arguments to extend that to other situations. We could get into a very technical debate over how that statue and the privacy act would apply. We could debate whether it's possible to have a private conversation on a public street, the definiton of "arrest", and a variety of constitutional arguments. But that would bore everyone. Even if notification isn't statutorily required, people will raise these issues. I guess my original point was that if cameras are running for long stretches of time, the po-po may need to figure out how to deal with notification issues.

In as much as I like in-car systems, I'm surprised no commenter has argued against cameras that are on all of the time. There are some privacy/big brother issues there. And at the very least, I'd like to suggest that officers can turn off the cameras when they take a shit.

Posted by Gidge | February 7, 2008 4:39 PM

Oh, come on, it's not like it's illegal to record any upskirt videos (it is) or any videos with sound without explicit permission or a warrant ...

oh, wait, it is. illegal.

Posted by Will in Seattle | February 7, 2008 5:22 PM

ps: Just looked at the link for the UK version. Interesting that they're hyping it from an evidence-gathering angle. May make it an easier sell to officers. It kind of looks like a head-mounted weapon.

Posted by Gidge | February 7, 2008 5:23 PM

It seems like there's a simple procedural remedy to the problem of "officer discretion", which is simply set the policy so that the officer will always activate a personal cam before exiting their vehicle.

Furthermore, the policy should make it abundantly clear that any deposition given by the officer that is not accompanied by cam footage would be autmatically deemed inadmissable, unless it can be demonstrated that the cam had a legitimate malfunction during the course of the stop. Obviously, cams would need to be checked prior to and after each shift; I imagine the "ruggedness" of the casing is both to protect it from normal jostling and bumping, but also from deliberate tampering.

I'd be willing to wager that 80% of cops would welcome the devices, since they're intended to protect their integrity as much as to provide some reassurance to the citizenry.

The bad cops will of course hate them, but then they'd hate anything that would make them more accountable for their behavior anyway.

Posted by COMTE | February 7, 2008 10:51 PM

You can buy that head cam the UK police are using. Archos makes it and the player/recorder that goes with it.

It does everything, plays music, video, pictures, records tv & video. I've got one of the older versions, it even ignores DRM.

Posted by PdxRitchie | February 8, 2008 1:08 AM

@11: Once again, your understanding of public / private spaces, violation of privacy, etc. proves to be woefully inadequate for this situation.

Read this.

Posted by Greg | February 8, 2008 11:58 AM

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