Oakland cops may go to video; City wants cameras in squads
The San Francisco Chronicle
Oakland, Calif. wants to put all its police officers — and their arrestees — on candid camera in order to avoid costly litigation and build public confidence in the overworked department.
The city, which paid more than $10.5 million last year to settle lawsuits from 119 victims in the "Riders" police case, may start installing video cameras in some of its 180 patrol cars later this year if the City Council can find the money during its Tuesday night meeting.
"It would discourage misconduct, but it would also help protect officers and help them identify suspects," City Councilman Larry Reid said.
A state-of-the-art digital video system could cost Oakland up to $9,000 per patrol car, which could be a big problem for a city that is suffering from the loss of state funds under the revised state budget.
Mayor seeks senator's help
Mayor Jerry Brown asked U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein last week for help in securing an estimated $3 million for the cameras, citing homeland security concerns.
City Attorney John Russo predicted video cameras would more than pay for themselves by reducing litigation. From 1997 to 2001, the city paid an average of more than $1 million a year to settle police misconduct suits.
"We will be able to eliminate the frivolous lawsuits more quickly," Russo said. "The video does not always give you the truth, but it''s a good tool to help you obtain the truth."
City Councilwoman Nancy Nadel said the city should do more research to see if the cameras are cost effective. But the proposal's sponsor, Vice Mayor Henry Chang, wants to start a pilot program immediately in East Oakland — home to many of the city's homicides.
The cameras would activate when an officer turns on the car''s flashing red lights and would capture images and sounds of events in front of the car. In most systems, officers can also activate the cameras from their belts up to 30 feet from their cars.
Many departments that use such cameras require officers to activate the video in any encounter that could lead to an arrest or traffic ticket.
Safeguard against scandals
Oakland officials hope to avoid future scandals such as the Riders case, in which four graveyard shift officers allegedly beat some suspects, planted drugs on others and lied to cover their tracks.
Jim Chanin, co-counsel for the victims, tried to force Oakland to adopt the cameras. But he said the city would only agree to study the issue. Chanin and the American Civil Liberties Union acknowledge that cops could beat an innocent person out of the cameras' sight, but they maintain video is an improvement.
"Even if it's not perfect, it's an independent record of the incident," said Mark Schlosberg, of the ACLU of Northern California.
The in-car cameras are common throughout the nation. In the Bay Area, 20 police agencies use video cameras in cars after receiving grants in the late 1990s from the Association of Bay Area Governments, which sought to reduce claims against members of its insurance pool.
Mill Valley started using VHS tapes in all six police cars in 1997, upgraded to digital tape in 2001 and is planing to convert to a tapeless digital system.
"Sometimes they don't work — and that is frustrating," said Mill Valley Capt. James Wickham. "But they've really helped us out in criminal cases and internal affairs investigations. Officers want to be on their very best behavior because they know the camera is on. It's a good reminder."
Oakland's police union has not weighed in on the issue. But the rank-and-file cops in many other cities have embraced video as a powerful tool to fend off false complaints.
Helped clear officer
Newport Beach police reported that an in-car video exonerated one of their officers of a sexual assault allegation after footage showed him simply writing a report.
In separate incidents less than a month after installing cameras in patrol cars, Colma police cleared one officer accused of misconduct and persuaded an alleged drunk driver to make a plea bargain to avoid a criminal trial.
"Both times the video backed up our officer's account completely," acting Chief Bob Lotti said.
In Cincinnati, a city with a long history of strained relations between police and the African American community, a video recording on Nov. 30 captured officers struggling to arrest a 350-pound man, who later died.
"Good or bad, we're happy it was all on tape," said Cincinnati police Lt. Kurt Byrd. "We were able to show fact. Millions of people saw that video on TV and made up their own minds. But at least they saw what happened."
In the Bay Area, Newark Police Capt. Lance Morrison said his agency has not expanded its video program beyond just two cars "because the technology moves too fast" and "about 90 percent of what we do is away from the car."
Audio recorders better?
Morrison said the audio recorder that Newark officers usually carry on their belt has proven more practical. He once turned on his recorder and left it on the front seat as he walked away with two detained men left unattended in the back seat.
"The tape caught them talking about jumping me and taking my gun," Morrison said. "It was pretty chilling — hearing two people plan my murder."
In a few years, Morrison hopes, police will be able to buy "badge-cams" or tiny digital cameras that can send streaming wireless video from a tiny camera mounted in each officer''s badge.
"The badge cam would revolutionize what we do," he said. "Every incident would be filmed in real time. Now, that's a reality show."