Sat, Nov 09, 2013 - Page 9 News List

Police body cameras; a California success story

Body cameras worn by police officers in Rialto, California, have resulted in more efficient policing since knowing they were being filmed made both cops and suspects behave

By Rory Carroll  /  The Guardian, RIALTO, California

Illustration: Constance Chou

The occupant was said to be violent, so officer Carlos Ramirez approached the apartment warily. A dank smell wafted from inside. Ramirez bristled with body armor, radio, gun and Taser, but before knocking on the door he adjusted just one piece of equipment: a tiny camera on his collar.

A tubby, barefoot man with broken teeth and wild eyes opened the door. He appeared to be high.

Ramirez questioned him about allegedly beating and evicting his stepson, a mentally disabled teenager. The man shifted from foot to foot and babbled about death threats.

The encounter, tense, but polite, ended inconclusively — a routine police foray into family dysfunction — except for that it was all recorded. As he returned to his patrol car and his next assignment, Ramirez tapped an app on his phone and uploaded the video.

“Somewhere down the line something could happen and what that guy said, his demeanor, could be evidence,” Ramirez said.

Rialto, a small, working-class city which bakes in the San Bernardino foothills outside Los Angeles, appeared in the films Transformers and The Hangover. However, among law enforcers it is becoming better-known for pioneering the use of body cameras on police officers.

Over the past year, all 70 of its uniformed officers have been kitted out with the oblong devices, about the size of stubby cigars, and the results have emboldened police forces in the US and the UK to follow suit.

The UK College of Policing recently announced plans for large-scale trials of body-worn cameras in England and Wales, saying Rialto’s experiment showed big drops in the use of force and in public complaints against officers.

Rialto has also become an example for US forces since a federal judge in New York praised its initiative.

“I think we’ve opened some eyes in the law enforcement world. We’ve shown the potential,” Rialto Police Chief Tony Farrar said. “It’s catching on.”

Body-worn cameras are not new. In the UK, Devon and Cornwall police launched a pilot scheme in 2006, while forces in Strathclyde, Hampshire and the Isle of Wight, among others, have also experimented. However, Rialto’s randomized controlled study has seized attention because it offers scientific — and encouraging — findings: After cameras were introduced in February last year, public complaints against officers plunged 88 percent compared with the previous 12 months, while officers’ use of force fell by 60 percent.

“When you know you’re being watched, you behave a little better. That’s just human nature,” Farrar said. “As an officer, you act a bit more professional, follow the rules a bit better.”

Video clips provided by the Rialto department show dramatic chases on foot — you can hear the officer panting — and by car which ended with arrests, and without injury.

Complaints often stemmed not from operational issues, but from “officers’ mouths,” Farrar said.

“With a camera, they are more conscious of how they speak and how they treat people,” he said.

The same applied to the public — once informed they were being filmed even drunk or agitated people tended to become more polite, Farrar said.

Those who lodged frivolous or bogus complaints about officers tended to retract them when shown video of the incidents.

“It’s like: ‘Oh, I hadn’t seen it that way,’” Farrar said.

Cameras made officers more careful about using force.

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