Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Police Body Cameras? How is that a bad idea?

“Would you wear one?”

I was asked by a co-worker.  My day job is in Law Enforcement.  On occasion I interact with known or potential criminals.  The answer was pretty simple;

“Why wouldn’t I wear one?

The police dashcam came to be in the late 1970s; it was a slow crawl and the technology was resistant to improvement, as late as 2009 I worked with a Martel system that was just slightly more useful than having an impressionist painter ride shotgun to record the action with acrylic paint on toilet paper.  It’s not that the camera systems are bad; it’s the fact that most of the time they are repurposed from commercial products and shoved in a police vehicle like that’s a good idea.  The camera designed to film the kid’s birthday parties you won’t watch isn’t going to handle the abuses put on it by an officer who has little respect for the physical boundaries of matter.  It’s not that they get broken intentionally (exceptions permitted) it’s just that everything inside of a police cruiser has a half-life that can be as short as one shift.  Ive seen some of the newer systems that are “purpose built” not survive a chance encounter with a thrown clip board.  If NASA put the same sort of attention into the space program as law enforcement did into quality cameras, we probably would have astronauts running around the lawn making airplane noises.

It’s also not an issue of cheap departments; it’s an issue of money in general.  Sure, there are the examples of nonsensical spending by police departments, usually from the larger, higher profile agencies.  The rural Sherriff’s department that have cruisers dangerously close to breaking 300K on their odometers cant concern themselves much with pumping out cash to replace downed cameras, or even buy them in the first place.

And then there are the limitations. The audio is usually body mike dependent, meaning you have to take a wireless mike from the car and wear it to get audio on the stop.  Yeah, if anything is going to break, it’s going to be that thing.  The first in-car system I ever used came with a wireless mike the size of a VHS tape that weighted twice as much at a time when my personal cell phone shot better quality video, audio and fit in my pocket.  I was given a device that would have been more useful as a space crayon than an audio recorder (yes, I know there is no such thing as a space crayon and that’s kind of my point).  Predictably, these things break.  Or you can’t get batteries for them.  Or they don’t sync with in-car video.  Or as I saw recently, they record at such a level as to make the audio useless, for no explainable reason. 

Now the body cameras are newer tech.  I think the first one I saw that didn’t look like a film rig from a Zach Braff movie was one made by a company with a name like an STD that had a camera that lacked the STDs reliability.  The video was choppy, audio was garbled and it only had thirty minutes of recording time.   The officer spent his own money on it because his department was too poor to buy them body armor, let alone in-car cameras.  Yeah, if you didn’t know, LEOs spend a lot of money out of pocket for gear that their department either can’t afford or won’t buy because some salad eating desk pilot doesn’t see the need for it.  I can understand shooting down a request for Space Based Laser Platform or In-Car Back Massagers but when you see a request for hand sanitizer, bio-shields, rubber gloves, tourniquets or new body armor get denied; it sort of puts things in perspective.   Of course the technology has improved, the Taser AXON system by all reports is more durable and more reliable than cheaper, repurposed technology but it comes with a serious price tag and it’s one that most departments can’t afford outright.  Seeing as some departments still don’t issue body armor or Tasers due to their cost (some officers even buy their own service weapon), this new cry for police body cameras in the wake of the Ferguson shooting is probably going to be met by many police chiefs and sheriffs with a shrug and many a thought or two as to how to turn public desires into usable currency. 

Of course we run the risk of people having unrealistic expectations of the video quality or what it can and cant see.  Video quality from Mars is awesome because the camera and supporting logistics costs more than many nations have or will have ever.  Something that straps to the body and is small enough for a determined mope to swallow to destroy the evidence (if it hasn’t happened, it will and yes it will be hilarious) is unlikely to give the public the THX experience.   Most cops are computer savvy,  the newer generation of officers with their hipster glasses and FaceySpace history are likely to be more so but tech is tech and just because an officer knows more about the tech does not mean the job is going to go any easier on it.  Shits gonna break; conspiracy theory to follow.

When the dashcam came to be, I don’t know if there was any controversy among officers over them.  If there was I guess I would find it as ridiculous as I do now.   Officers I’ve talked to that don’t support the idea of a body camera are few and far between and these are probably the same officers that either fall into the im working on getting fired or the why can’t I wear tin foil in uniform categories.  For the uniformed officer and plain clothed (non-UC) officer, a body camera is going to be 100% awesome.  Not only will videos “leaked” to youtube be epically more awesome (seriously, it’s like taking the donkey that is dashcam video and turning it into a fire breathing Gryphon that is ridden by a dancing mom with infinite flexibility) but the camera will greatly reduce citizen complaints, provide more credible evidence (in some cases) and perhaps in the long run change the criminals/suspects/witnesses/mope-on-the-corner-drinking-rubbing-alcohol-out-of-a-broken-T-Ball trophies attitude.  LEOS know that the behavior didn’t change much at all with the prevalence of dashcams, but body cams change things for the better.  Now video is going into the domestic, across the field, under the bridge, behind the gas station and over the wall.  Like Dashcams, it’s unlikely we will see some constitutional requirement to have them though if the public wants us to have them and they are willing to foot the bill, let’s do it.

Seriously.  Let’s do it.  Our relationship with the public is fundamentally broken.  We have a great deal of support from the individual citizen, only you never seem to see or hear from that citizen.  I don’t care what the criminal element thinks, because we won’t ever be bros with those dudes; though the erosion of public support is troubling.  Showing our trust in our actions by videoing every encounter in and out of the car will go a long way towards fixing things.  Officers that were not before will probably be a little more respectful, evidence will be stronger and CBS will launch a new series of cop dramas starring David Caruso as a tough as nails video tech. YEEEEEAHHHH!

1 comment:

  1. Please keep posting Blogs like this... for real. Your stuff is much appreciated. You actually bring up great points that are educational and logical. Im starting to believe that PoliceOne was secretly bought by CNN. lol.