Police cars get digital cameras; Seattle department first to use new wireless capability

By Hector Castro
Seattle Post-Intelligencer Reporter

It''s just a small camera tucked up near the rearview mirror of the Seattle police patrol car, but it signals a leap forward in technology and, some say, a next step in police accountability.

Yesterday, officials unveiled new digital recording cameras that eventually will be mounted in all of the department''s 223 patrol cars.

While many other departments have begun using digital recording devices statewide, Seattle is alone in including a wireless capability that enables officers to download the images from their patrol cars directly to the precincts.

"The city of Seattle really wanted the wireless piece of it," said Mike Andritch of the Olympia office of IBM, which developed the software.

Begun as a pilot project in 2001 in response to community concerns about police accountability, the city now has outfitted 80 patrol cars with digital cameras.

Fifteen more patrol cars have older video cameras.

Fifteen additional digital cameras are expected to be installed early next year at a cost of about $5,000 per camera.

Part of the cost is being borne by federal funds, officials said.

Mayor Greg Nickels, speaking at the Seattle Police Support Facility on Airport Way, called the camera program a "success story."

The program, he said, began as a way to address the distrust of police that some in the community have.

"It''s an issue we take very seriously," Nickels said.

The digital cameras, he said, should help build trust by providing what he called "objective evidence" of police encounters with residents.

City Councilman Nick Licata, chairman of the council''s public safety committee, said he is aware that some in the Police Department have not yet restored the trust of some in the community.

"I think as more cars have cameras, we will begin to see the community recognize their importance in providing police accountability," he said.

But so far, the images recorded by the cameras have been more a boon to law enforcement than to police watchdogs.

Licata could think of no instances in which the cameras helped anyone support a complaint against an officer. On the other hand, at least one woman was charged with filing a false complaint after her allegations of sexual abuse were disproved by what an onboard camera captured.

And City Attorney Tom Carr said the recordings have helped resolve hundreds of cases, particularly those involving drunk drivers.

"Generally, we send out the tape and we get a guilty plea," Carr said.

Seattle police Chief Gil Kerlikowske said an added benefit is that cameras in patrol cars may have a deterrent effect, prompting someone considering harming an officer to think twice, knowing all the action is being captured by a camera.

The new cameras, manufactured by Texas-based COBAN Research and Technology, provide a range of services the old video cameras don''t.

For one thing, storing images on a computer hard drive takes up much less space than saving hundreds of videocassette tapes.

"Right now, we have a wall of videotapes in our office," Carr said.

Mike Quinn, a senior planner with the Police Department, said that when the city began working on the camera program, it had little information on the types of benefits available by using digital cameras but knew it wanted digital.

One side benefit of the COBAN cameras, however, has been what is called "pre-event" recording. The camera records on a continuous loop that erases after 60 seconds.

It begins to save images when activated to record by the officer either from inside the car, by flicking on the emergency lights, or via a remote device officers can carry in their belts or pockets.

Because of the loop recording, the previous 60 seconds of image recorded prior to being activated is also saved.

"You can see the situation that led the officer to act," Quinn said.

Officers will receive a two-day, 16-hour training session before rolling out with one of the camera-outfitted patrol cars.

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