Everyone carrying a smart phone these days is carrying a camera, meaning that if you're in a traffic accident or nearby after a crime occurs, you might be caught on film. Police officers have grown to expect this, and the related possibility that their actions will end up on YouTube or elsewhere, not necessarily in a flattering light.
Soon, Modesto police officers will be packing cameras, too. The small cameras can be worn on their uniform collar or sunglasses or motorcycle helmet. They'll be instructed to turn the video cameras on when they are investigating crimes, interviewing suspects or dealing with certain other situations. Department leaders believe the cameras will help solve crimes and reduce the time and expense for what turn out to be frivolous complaints of officer rudeness or abuse.
Car- and body-mounted cameras have helped authorities arrest the people responsible for two police officer deaths in Northern California in recent months. Conceivably, if California Highway Patrolman Earl Scott had been wearing a camera on his uniform back in 2006, then authorities would have been able to quickly identify and convict the man who ultimately pleaded guilty to killing him, instead of having the case drag on for many years.
We think the body cameras will prove useful, although we've learned to be skeptical about what can be accomplished with new technology. Surveillance cameras have not proven particularly effective in reducing vandalism and other crimes in plazas and other areas.
The body cameras will be free to the MPD, although they're being paid for out of tax dollars two grants totaling $157,600 from the Department of Homeland Security. It isn't at all clear how Modesto officers wearing cameras will improve the security of the nation, but since the money was offered, we're glad that our police department is getting a piece of it.
The body cameras, produced by Taser Protect Life in Arizona, are a variation of the patrol car cameras that Modesto and other agencies have used for some time. Car cameras, however, only catch what is happening in front of or right beside the vehicle.
The body camera pack fits into a shirt pocket and are easy to click on and off without being removed. They can be easily downloaded and recharged at the end of the shift, with any captured video saved as evidence. Officers will not be allowed to edit or delete segments of the tape, department officials say.
The MPD will buy a total of 157 cameras and all uniformed officers will be required to wear them, as well as some in special enforcement units.
Police officials believe that the videos will provide powerful images in court and in reviews of complaints against officers. Because the videos will be booked as evidence, they will not be made public unless they end up in court or if the MPD releases a tape to help apprehend a criminal. We hope the department will recognize the value of releasing videos of incidents where there are legitimate questions raised about whether an officer responded appropriately.
Knowing that they are being videotaped may cause people to behave better than they would otherwise and that could apply to officers as well as those being investigated. The cameras could be helpful in training new officers and reviewing the performance of veterans.
Privacy concerns are appropriately raised about the widespread use of surveillance cameras, but that seems less of a concern with this equipment because few people have an expectation of privacy when talking to a uniformed police officer.
Modesto will be among the first California police agencies to have these types of cameras. We anticipate that there will be lessons as well as benefits from the new equipment.