The number of video cameras in police vehicles across the United States is approaching 20,000, according to a recent report by the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), which found these cameras enhance officer safety, improve agency accountability and reduce agency liability.
But once upon a time, the idea of putting video cameras in police cars was frowned upon and criticized by law enforcement officials. And, civil rights activists and social libertarians once called these systems "big brother" personified.So what changed?
According to video surveillance proponents, the tragic events of September 11, 2001, changed everything. "The Constitution's protections are unchanging, but the nature of public peril can change with dramatic speed, as recent events show," wrote U.S. District Judge Charles Haight in a critical ruling that reduced restrictions on police surveillance of political groups in New York City after 9/11.
After this court decision, many law enforcement agencies began embracing the technology. "It's not really a Big Brother state," says police Capt. Bill Fisher, commander of the civil affairs unit in the Philadelphia (Pennsylvania) Police Department, of Pennsylvania's use of video surveillance systems. He says Pennsylvania agencies partly use videotape to gather proof that officers are not breaking the law in cases where police brutality is alleged. Seattle's Mayor Greg Nickels adds using digital cameras in this way helps build trust (in law enforcement) by providing what he calls "objective evidence" of police encounters with residents.
Their words ring true throughout the country as more and more law enforcement agencies adopt modern surveillance methods and equipment, and reap similar benefits.
In Pennsylvania's Buskkill Township the use of mobile video systems helped reduce the amount of time officers spent in court on DUI and other cases involving traffic violations. As a result, Buskkill Township is pursuing additional grants to equip more police vehicles with cameras.
Los Angeles Police Chief William Bratton is also a strong proponent of in-car surveillance systems, and wants digital cameras installed in all of the city's 1,600 patrol cars. It is estimated the California department could save $3 million a year in costs to investigate complaints against police officers.Wireless trends
But another reason for the growing acceptance of video surveillance is the advent of new wireless technology and less bulky equipment. Video can now be recorded digitally and transferred quickly using wireless network technology.
The old ways of transferring files were just too cumbersome and flawed, adds Craig Cigard, product manager for Lenexa, Kansas-based Kustom Signals. "We knew agencies would be interested in wireless technology. They could see the advantages."
Technological advances also allow recorded evidence to be stored compactly and more efficiently on compact discs (CDs), universal storage drives, digital storage devices and other data repositories. The days of archiving videocassettes that occupy shelf or cabinet real estate are coming to an end.
Using wireless systems further protects the integrity of video evidence, Cigard adds. "A lot of agencies don't want officers touching evidence. When someone is pulled over for a DUI, for example, the video from the car system is evidence that either exonerates an officer from a liability claim or puts someone in jail. From both evidentiary and productivity standpoints, agencies want to substantially reduce or eliminate officer interaction with the video."Wireless video systems
A typical IP wireless video surveillance system contains the following primary components: digital cameras, mesh network nodes or access points (APs), gateway nodes, backhaul units, servers, monitoring stations with surveillance software and someone to monitor the cameras.