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

“It’s still part of the business, they still do it, but now they make better use of what we call ‘verbal judo,’” he said.

Fewer complaints and calmer policing, would reduce lawsuits and expensive payouts, Farrar said.

Images of police brutality have shaken California since grainy footage of Los Angeles police officers beating Rodney King ignited riots in 1992.

Rialto police fished King out of his pool last year after he accidentally drowned

In May, sheriff’s deputies in Kern County confiscated videophone footage of them fatally beating a father-of-four, David Silva, prompting suspicion of a coverup. In those and other cases, the officers did not know they were being filmed.

Farrar is a wonkish contrast to the stereotypical, abrasive commander of TV dramas. He has several degrees, including a recent master’s from Cambridge’s Institute of Criminology, which planted the idea of methodically assessing the impact of body cameras.

Upon returning to Rialto — city motto: “Bridge to progress” — he obtained US$100,000 in state and federal funding for the Taser-made cameras — about US$1,000 each — plus servers and fiber-optic cables.

Each officer has their own camera, mounted on collars, spectacles or caps, and is expected to activate it during interactions with the public. Encounters are logged and uploaded to a secure digital cloud service, evidence.com.

Farrar advised bigger departments who wish to do the same to scale up incrementally, to iron out technical bugs and let officers get used to the idea.

In Rialto some bristled at the intrusion, fearing loss of privacy and autonomy.

“I heard guys complaining it would get them into trouble, but I’ve had no problems, so I’m OK with it,” Ramirez said.

Most now accept the cameras as another part of the job, Sergeant Josh Lindsay said.

A self-confessed technophile, he said they provided context to contentious incidents partially captured by bystanders’ smartphones.

“Now you can see the [suspect] punching the officer twice in the face before he hits him with his baton,” Lindsay said.

Even more valuable, cameras aided evidence gathering, such as statements from domestic abuse victims, he said.

“By the time those cases get to court, often things have cooled down and the victim retracts, but with the video you see her with the bloody lip. There’s nothing lost in translation,” he said.

Under California law, police are not obliged to inform people of the filming. Local media coverage has spread awareness of the cameras, but many, like the barefoot man questioned by Ramirez, appear oblivious. It is too early to tell if there will be a backlash.

Even George Orwell did not anticipate body cameras in 1984, but the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, a frequent critic of police abuses, said with the right controls, accountability gains would outweigh privacy concerns. It urged the department to regularly delete videos and keep them private, unless needed for prosecutions.

Farrar said controls are in place.

“No one wants to see these videos on YouTube,” he said.

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