Police officers have become accustomed to having the public record their interactions with video cameras or smart phones, revealing sometimes embarrassing or even abusive behavior.
But increasingly, it will be the police who are wielding cameras to document their own actions, as well as the actions of the individuals they deal with.
Mesa will equip 50 officers with cameras this spring in a year-long pilot, after being one of several Arizona law enforcement agencies that completed a smaller test. The department hopes the recordings will curb false complaints against officers, document criminal activity and record evidence at crime scenes.
The cameras are manufactured by Scottsdale-based Taser International, which has supplied police around the world with its stun guns. Police Chief Frank Milstead said Mesa officers gave Taser feedback on the Axon Flex design after testing an earlier version that they found cumbersome.
Now, the department has volunteers who want to wear cameras that will be mounted on glasses, caps or elsewhere.
Officers are filmed all the time and want their own recording to capture what happened before somebody starts taping with a smart phone or camera, Milstead said.
“The piece that’s posted on the internet or released to the media is usually the provocative piece of that video and it’s not from the vantage point of the police officer,” Milstead said. “They can capture the entire encounter and not only protect themselves from liability, but protect the department from a frivolous lawsuit.”
A complaint as simple as rude behavior can trigger 40 hours to 60 hours of investigative work and drag on for months, Milstead said. The cameras could slash that time by quickly establishing whether allegations have merit or are baseless.
“Sometimes in the heat of the moment, people remember things differently and they go back and watch the tape and they go, I guess you’re right,” Milstead said.
Police footage from in-car cameras has played a significant role in addressing complaints, according to the International Association of Chiefs of Police. A study showed 93 percent of complaints were dismissed when they included video evidence. The association found 48 percent of the public would be less likely to file a complaint if video had been taken.
The cameras have a 16-hour battery life. When an officer activates the record function, a storage device will capture the 30 seconds prior to activation to fully capture an event.
Data is downloaded to a Taser server. It cannot be deleted from the device until after the officer has uploaded it, Taser spokesman Steve Tuttle said.
It should be obvious to people interacting with police that they’re being recorded, Tuttle said. Milstead said he also believes most people will be aware of the camera, but he’s not sure yet if officers will notify people they are being taped or if the department will have a campaign to raise awareness of the cameras. Officers should be equipped with them by April.
Most cameras will go to patrol officers because of their high level of public interaction. SWAT officers may also be equipped.
Mesa will evaluate the cameras and Taser’s storage system after one year. It’s possible the department will equip more officers with cameras before if the cameras are popular, Milstead said. The city has 390 patrol officers.
Mesa is spending about $67,000 on the cameras. The purchase includes a smart phone application that lets officers record video and audio of their interactions with suspects.
Milstead said the cameras could make it easier for officers to file reports because they’ll be able to document a crime scene with video instead of documenting every detail in writing.
Milstead said he believes police usually conduct themselves professionally but he said it the split-second decisions required in police work can bring challenges.
“Maybe we find a training deficiency and we say in these situations, we’re not making the right decisions or we’re not making them as often as we should,” Milstead said. “And we develop a training plan to combat that.”
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