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February 18, 2004
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Digital revolution spreading to police cars

By Russell Lissau, The Chicago Daily Herald

It was just before 7 a.m., and Mundelein police officer Chris Callas was on patrol near the intersection of Prospect and McKinley avenues.

Suddenly a woman drove through the crossing, apparently ignoring the stop sign at the corner. Callas immediately triggered his squad car's new DVD camera, which - thanks to an electronic program that records even when the camera isn't activated - captured video of the offense.

When the driver proclaimed her innocence, Callas brought her to his squad car and played the video on a small color monitor. The violation was obvious.

"She looked at it and said, 'I guess I did blow the stop sign,' and I wrote a citation," Callas recalled. "It was a beautiful thing."

Just as digital video recorders are replacing VCRs in millions of American living rooms, law-enforcement experts predict digital cameras eventually will displace the videotape recorders used in police cars throughout the suburbs.

Although few local departments equip police cars with digital video equipment, proponents say the devices are more dependable and simpler to use than their tape-driven counterparts. Digital cameras usually provide higher-quality images than models using videocassettes, and thus offer stronger evidence in court.

Put simply, the state-of-the-art gear will get more bad guys off our roads, authorities say.

"One picture is worth a thousand words - and a digital video is worth a million," said Mundelein Police Cmdr. Nicholas Poulos, whose department is equipping 11 squad cars with DVD recorders. "To us, this is top of the line."

'An effective tool'
In-squad cameras began appearing in the suburbs in the mid-1990s and have become increasingly popular within the last five years.

Initially reluctant to use the cameras because of their Big Brother implications, police today rely on the tapes for recording the behavior of reckless motorists, filming sobriety tests of suspected drunken drivers, documenting suspects' actions during traffic stops and other important duties.

Typical in-squad systems consist of a small camera mounted inside the car near the windshield and a videocassette recorder in the trunk. Recording pictures and sound, most use the same VHS tapes as home VCRs.

A growing number of law-enforcement experts, however, say digital cameras are far more valuable when it comes to gathering evidence on the road.

Digital systems record images and sound directly onto computer hard drives or DVDs. That's a great advantage over VHS models, proponents say, because it's far easier to store computer files or thin DVDs than bulky videocassettes. Officers also can store much more information on a DVD than a tape - in some cases, up to a month of patrol videos.

Additionally, police say digital in-squad systems are more reliable than VHS recorders. The machines take a beating because of road conditions and extreme weather, and officers say the tape models don't hold up well.

"VCRs were not meant to be in the trunks of cars," said Gurnee police Cmdr. Jay Patrick, whose department uses VHS systems but will test a digital model this year. "They're down a lot, and that's a problem."

Videotape also naturally degrades over time, while digital images do not. Similarly, copies of videotapes get weaker from generation to generation, while copies of a digital movie are as sharp as the original.

DVD systems like Mundelein's also include memory buffers that record incidents before officers actually activate the cameras. The cameras run all the time, and the special software saves video for up to 30 seconds before a camera is switched on.

Those factors further enhance a digital video's evidentiary value in court.

"If you can capture back 30 seconds, it will be helpful and make the case that much better," Lake County State's Attorney Michael Waller said. "That makes it even more of an effective tool."

Digital systems' capabilities don't exclusively help prosecutors. Wrongly accused defendants can use the recordings to establish their innocence by showing jurors or judges crisp video that proves they passed physical field sobriety tests or didn't commit the offenses that brought them to court.

"The quality of the video and audio is better, and that can help either side," said Lake County Circuit Court Associate Judge Jorge L. Ortiz, who presides at one of the county's branch traffic courts.

High Cost is a Factor
Although digital systems have many benefits, many departments simply can't afford the costly gear. Typical VHS systems run $3,500 to $5,000 apiece, while prices for digital systems can top $6,000.

In Illinois, where 70 percent of police forces have 10 or fewer officers and have corresponding small budgets, those rates price some departments out of the market, said Laimutis Nargelenas, spokesman for the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police.

"We think it's a great idea, but for a lot of the small departments, the cost is just too high," he said.

Nationwide, only about 37 percent of all local police departments use in-car cameras, according to U.S. Justice Department statistics. As is the case locally, the majority of those departments use VHS tapes, not digital video, experts say.

"We know the technology is there, and that the technology will benefit the officer, the jury, the judge and the defense attorney," said Dennis Wise, spokesman for the National Association of Chiefs of Police and the national president of a non-profit group called the American Federation of Police and Concerned Citizens. "But the cost of the equipment is far beyond the budgets of many law- enforcement (agencies)."

Police in Elgin and Lake Zurich are among the few suburban police forces using digital hard-drive systems, while Mundelein is the only one with the DVD equipment. Starting in March, motorists driving through Lake in the Hills will be monitored by digital in- squad cameras, too.

More local departments are considering switching to digital systems. Police in Gurnee, Hawthorn Woods and Libertyville are among those saving up for the cutting-edge gadgets.

Secondary benefits
If you're a safe driver, you may think your life won't be affected by the use of digital cameras. But law-enforcement officials believe the new technology's expanded use will have secondary benefits for the community.

For example, Lake County's Waller hopes that as awareness of the cameras spreads, motorists may drive more carefully to avoid almost-certain convictions, thus making roads safer for everyone.

Waller also expects the high-quality footage will prompt more defendants to settle cases before trial, thus shrinking prosecutorial and judicial caseloads and saving taxpayers' money.

"I suspect we'll see a time when all police cars will be equipped with (digital) cameras and there won't be a need for a lot of trials in particular types of cases," he said.

Mundelein Deputy Police Chief Michael O'Brien predicts all local police cars will be equipped with digital cameras within a year. Although the cost is scaring some villages away right now, he's confident prices will fall as the equipment becomes more common - just as they did with the VHS models.

"Technology is pushing everything this way," O'Brien said. "This is the next natural progression."

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