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November 08, 2002
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Increased clamor for cameras in cop cars


USA Today

By Patrick McMahon
USA TODAY

INGLEWOOD, Calif. It took only hours for a videotape showing a police officer roughing up a handcuffed teenager in Inglewood, Calif., to hit round-the-clock national television newscasts.

And it took barely as long for Roosevelt Dorn, mayor of the Los Angeles suburb, to demand that video cameras be installed in all of his city''s patrol cars to record police activity.

"Cameras will serve the public and the police officers," Dorn says. "It will prevent people from making up stories about what happened, and it will remind both the public and officers they are being taped. It will put everyone on notice that you have to be at your best."

The Inglewood incident July 6 and another videotaped police encounter two days later in Oklahoma City are prompting calls that more of the nation''s patrol cars be equipped with permanently mounted cameras. But a pricetag of $1,500 to $10,000 per car makes it an expensive remedy for distrust between police and some of the citizens they''re paid to protect.

Most of the nation''s police cruisers don''t have video and audio recorders, industry officials say, but the number is growing. "In another six to eight years, you''ll have a camera in every car," predicts Jerry McKnight, marketing director for International Police Technologies in Tulsa, Okla.

Since 2000, the Justice Department Office of Community-Oriented Policing Services has granted $15 million to state law enforcement agencies to equip 3,563 cruisers with cameras. This week, a Senate Appropriations subcommittee approved $1 million for Seattle''s Police Department to install digital video cameras in its 224 patrol cars.

The federal money is "a good start," says James McMahon, superintendent of the New York State Police and head of the state police division of the International Association of Chiefs of Police. "But we need a major federal commitment to help finance this if we are going to equip cruisers nationwide."

They protect both sides

Videotapes of police activity have been around for more than a decade. They are a staple of "reality shows" on cable television that show police in action, often handling drunk drivers. Cameras got national attention in 1991 when a Texas constable was murdered during a traffic stop that was being recorded.

There's widespread agreement that cameras protect the rights of police and citizens.

Cameras not only monitor police behavior but also discourage bogus complaints of police misconduct, says Merrick Bobb, director of the Police Assessment Resource Center in Los Angeles. The non-profit organization advises local governments on ways to improve police accountability.

With a camera rolling, Bobb says, "the officer has a very reliable witness."

The devices also are used to combat racial profiling by police, particularly state highway patrols that make traffic stops.

Responding to an outcry over the shooting of three young men by state troopers on the New Jersey Turnpike in 1998, Gov. Christie Whitman ordered video cameras installed in all 245 state patrol cars. "Cameras have done more to vindicate our troopers against unfair allegations than they have to implicate troopers," says trooper Stephen Jones, spokesman for the New Jersey State Police.

The New York State Police has cameras in 335 of its 900 marked cruisers, including all its traffic-enforcement cars. "Every chief of police and nearly every trooper would say they''d love to have cameras in their cars," McMahon says.

Smile: You''re on TV

One of the most widely used cameras is the Eyewitness In-Car Video System, made by Kustom Signals of Lenexa, Kan. Costing about $4,500, it includes a high-resolution camera installed above the rear-view mirror, next to a small video monitor. A videocassette recorder is locked in an air-conditioned stainless steel case in the trunk.

The camera usually captures activity directly in front of the cruiser. But the direction of the camera, which has a wide angle and zoom lens, can be adjusted manually inside the patrol car.

"An officer can record on the spot the reason he is stopping a motorist," says William Fagan, executive vice president of Kustom Signals.

The cameras can''t record everything.

"Sometimes, things happen off camera," acknowledges Oren Root, associate director of the Police Assessment Resource Center. "Often the audio is considerably more revealing than the video."

Some departments have been aggressive in ordering video cameras, but others are experimenting. The California Highway Patrol, for example, has cameras in 72 of its 2,400 cruisers. "We''re evaluating whether they''re going to be effective for us," spokeswoman Ann DaVigo says.

Seattle police have equipped 16 cars with cameras since February. "There''s definitely a trend toward the use of cameras," department chief Gil Kerlikowske says.

"It''s probably most effective in traffic stops, when the drivers often are aware of the camera. They tend to be more cooperative and less combative," Kerlikowske says.

The cameras have won support from Seattle community groups and the police union, but the price tag remains a barrier for many departments.

In Oklahoma City, installing cameras in patrol cars has been discussed informally, according to city spokeswoman Karen Farney.

"I think it''s a good idea," says Richard Milton, head of the Oklahoma City chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. "It would take away a lot of suspicion, and it would give police an opportunity to shine."

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For more information on in-car video cameras, visit www.KustomSignals.com or call 800-4KUSTOM.

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