09/11/2008

Seattle officers to wear tiny cameras

By Jennifer Sullivan
The Seattle Times

SEATTLE — A small camera that can store more than four hours of video has hit the streets clipped to Seattle police.

The tiny battery-powered cameras allow police to capture video images of events they encounter on the street. Late last month at least one officer was seen wearing a tiny black-and-green camera as 300 demonstrators from the bicycle group Critical Mass rode through downtown Seattle.

Seattle police Sgt. Sean Whitcomb declined to comment at length about the cameras and wouldn't confirm whether the department plans to outfit more officers with the 3-1/2-ounce devices.

"We're always looking at new technologies to see if they will enable us to perform our jobs more efficiently and more safely," Whitcomb said.

The cameras are made by a Seattle company named VIEVU, which has sold the devices to law-enforcement departments throughout the state, said Steve Ward, a former Seattle police officer who founded the company. In addition to Seattle police, officers in Bothell, Issaquah, Kirkland and Portland, as well as deputies in Snohomish and King counties, have used the cameras, Ward said.

"The community wants their police to be more accountable, and video gives you an exact account of what happens in an incident," Ward said. "It's all about liability coverage."

The device, which resembles a pager, is almost completely waterproof and can be attached to an officer's uniform, helmet or belt. Ward said the device is also sold to civilians and has been popular among doctors, lawyers and anyone else who might need to record their business meetings to avoid potential litigation.

Seattle police have been expanding their video-recording capabilities in recent months, the department has cameras watching traffic lights and school zones and has even been known to have officers to monitor private security surveillance systems in downtown high-rises in search of trouble in the business sector. Police departments across the region have long had video cameras in their patrol cars. The American Civil Liberties Union has voiced concern about the growing trend of police recording people.

Christina Drummond, director for the Technology and Liberty Project Director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, said that the civil-rights agency has concerns about moving toward a "surveillance society."

"You need make sure there are guidelines so that the video tells the whole story or the accurate story," Drummond said, adding that she hopes Seattle police and other agencies will share the guidelines they set for officers when it comes to video recording.

Ward said he understands the ACLU's concerns, but said, "Look at the world today; everybody has got a video camera on their cellphone.

"Clearly, we don't support being a surveillance culture," Ward said. "We want our officers to be accurate and detailed if you have evidence that is undisputable."

Copyright 2008 The SEattle Times

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