Headcam Records a Cop’s-Eye View

SAN JOSE, Calif.—Each day when San Jose police officer William Pender goes to work, he straps on his badge, gun, radio and Taser. And then he attaches a small video camera to his left ear.

The camera is part of a test program. Throughout Pender’s shift, it records whatever is in front of him.  With the push of a button, he can save the video and audio of his interactions with citizens, suspects and fellow officers. It is the way of the future, he points out.

“It’s actually really cool,” he says.  “You can look from my point of view.  What I see, the camera sees.”

Pender, a 15-year veteran, is one of 18 San   Jose police officers participating in a pilot program to test the head cameras. Called the Taser Axon, the camera is made by Taser International, which also makes Taser electroshock guns.

“I think it’s a tremendous piece of technology,” he says. “Everyone has been using cameras against us for so long. It’s nice to have our point of view instead of someone’s blurry phone picture that doesn’t tell the whole story.”

The headcam, slightly larger than a Bluetooth phone, comes with a detached display screen and a microphone. The camera is mounted on a band that wraps around the back of the officer’s head.  At the end of a shift, the officer downloads the day’s recordings onto a secure website but does not have access to edit them.

“Overall, the product has worked exceptionally well,” says Sgt. Ronnie Lopez, a spokesman for the San Jose Police Department. “You know what they say: A picture is worth a thousand words.  It has really allowed us to document what we do.”

David Onek, a senior fellow at the Berkeley Center for Criminal Justice, says police agencies around the country are increasingly turning to new technology, especially cameras. Such equipment can be a valuable asset, he says, but officers must be careful not to intrude on citizens’ rights to privacy.

“A number of these technologies can be additional useful tools for law enforcement, but none of them is a panacea,” says Onek, who also serves on the San Francisco Police Commission. “We need to look at how effective each is and balance that against legitimate civil liberties concerns and costs.”

Taser International charges $5,700 per officer for a three-year package that includes the camera and the secure video storage website, evidence.com.

The Axon headcam proved its value to one officer last November in Fort Smith, Ark., another city where the device is being tested. Police officer Brandon Davis was wearing a headcam when he responded to a 911 domestic violence call and fatally shot an armed man.  His recording of the incident helped lead to his quick exoneration.

The headcam recorded Davis arriving at the house and talking with the woman who had called police. When she let him inside, he was confronted by her husband holding a handgun. Davis could be heard on the recording ordering the man nine times to drop his weapon. The man ignored the commands, and Davis ultimately shot him. After reviewing the video and audio of the event, authorities concluded that Davis had acted appropriately.

Tom Smith, chairman and co-founder of Taser International, says the incident provided a “powerful validation” of the company’s two-year effort to develop the camera and a secure website for downloading recordings.

“Although the outcome of this incident is tragic, we are proud the Axon video was helpful in the investigation of this event in order to protect the truth of what actually happened,” Smith said in a statement released by the company. “This video clearly demonstrates the power of the Axon on-officer camera.”

Other cities testing the camera include San Diego, Cincinnati, and Aberdeen, S.D., which recently became the first to purchase the device.

Pender says the head camera is a big improvement over the car cameras used by many departments.  Unlike the car camera, which only shows events that take place in front of a police vehicle, the headcam can show an entire incident.

“It’s a totally different type of technology,” he says. “Most of our work doesn’t happen in front of the car.”

The Axon is designed so that it continuously records on a 30-second loop. The officer decides when to save an event and presses a button on his chest, automatically preserving the preceding 30 seconds of video along with the action that follows.

During a recent traffic stop, Pender administered a sobriety test to a suspected drunken driver, then rewound the video to review the man’s performance and make sure he had the evidence he needed.

“In court, he is going to lose because it’s all on tape,” he says. “The jury is going to see the guy stumbling around.”

Pender, who decided to become a police officer after he was the victim of a bank holdup, says he believes the camera has the potential to improve the behavior of both the police and the public.

The recording can provide clear-cut evidence and make it easier to establish a suspect’s guilt or innocence. It can also document police behavior, which could prove valuable in cases where an officer is accused of misconduct.

Pender says he doesn’t act differently when he is wearing the camera. But an officer with a record of receiving complaints might be inspired to improve the way he or she treats people.

“You feel very safe having it on because everything is being recorded,” he says. “At the same time, people act very differently when you’re wearing it. You have someone who might want to mouth off or not go along. They start looking at your head.

“They ask, ‘What is that?’ They know they are being videotaped.”

Pender notes that officers who use the camera have to be aware of privacy issues. For example, officers need to turn off the camera when dealing with a juvenile or a rape victim, and, depending on the circumstances, when entering someone’s home.

It’s also a good idea to remember to turn it off when using the restroom. “Sometime you forget,” he says, “which is kind of scary.”
Spokesman Lopez foresees a day when the headcam is as standard as the police radio.

“I predict in the future officers won’t hit the street without wearing them,” he says.

Richard C. Paddock San Francisco Correspondent

Source: AOL News and TASER



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