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Nowhere to hide; Police cameras everywhere becoming standard.

Byline: Scott J. Croteau

Across the country, law enforcement agencies have been equipping officers on the streets with video cameras, whether on an officer's body or in the cruiser.

Area police officials say the equipment and footage help collect evidence, train officers and deal with complaints of police misbehavior.

"The big thing here is it really saves the police from false claims or potential liability," said A. Wayne Sampson, a retired police chief and the executive director of the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association.

While many New England communities seem to be behind the curve in the use of body cameras, that type of equipment is flourishing in California. Newer technology usually comes from the West Coast, so it is not out of the ordinary to see the use of newer police gear start there and move across the country, Mr. Sampson said.

Companies such as TASER and VIEVU sell body cameras, in which a camera is worn over an officer's ear, and a device allows the officer to turn on the camera.

Some departments in Central Massachusetts have cruiser cameras, which are mounted in the vehicles and are able to record traffic stops or be used in motor vehicle investigations.

"There are so many people out there using cellphone cameras or video cameras, and this enables law enforcement to produce documentary evidence from the perspective they are seeing it," Mr. Sampson said.

Heidi Traverso, a Seattle police officer for 15 years who is now the director of business development for Seattle-based VIEVU, said bystanders usually only gather a snippet of what is happening in an incident involving police. Body cameras show the whole incident as it unfolds and what the officer may have reacted to, she said.

The use of mounted surveillance cameras placed in communities makes members of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts uneasy. People have always felt a right to walk in public with some anonymity.

Sarah R. Wunsch, staff lawyer for the ACLU of Massachusetts, also has concerns about the use of body cameras by law enforcement. She said she is concerned about a policy regarding when the officer turns the device on and off as well as the visibility of the device to the public.

While makers of the body cameras say the videos taken cannot be manipulated, Ms. Wunsch believes they can be. If the officer determines when to turn on and off the device, the officer controls which events are recorded, she said.

It is also illegal to secretly record audio in a conversation. Ms. Wunsch said that is why she is concerned about whether an officer's body camera would be visible to the public.

Cruiser cameras are good for highway patrols or officers who handle traffic stops, but urban and suburban officers interact with suspects on the streets, Ms. Traverso said.

"It will be part of the uniform in five to 10 years," she said. "It will be a rare moment when you don't see a camera on an officer's equipment."

Using video evidence can help officers reduce time spent on reports but also review statements made to them more quickly, she said. This would allow more time for officers to be on the streets.

Better evidence for court cases is another plus, Ms. Traverso said. Video evidence makes it hard for someone to pull back a statement made to police, she added.

Newer technology, such as body cameras, typically is adopted more slowly in New England, where police unions are more active, Ms. Traverso said. Unions are usually involved in the introduction of new equipment.

Cruiser cameras are something the ACLU is fond of. The cameras usually tape a traffic incident once a cruiser's lights are turned on. The cruiser cameras help deal with the issue of racial profiling and help with civil rights issues, Ms. Wunsch said.

West Brookfield police use camera cruisers, but if officers wanted to buy a body camera out of their training equipment allotment, Chief C. Thomas O'Donnell wouldn't object.

"As the technology gets better and the devices get smaller and less expensive, I think you are going to see more use," the chief said of the body cameras.

He was an officer in Connecticut in the 1980s when cruiser cameras started to be used. At first, Chief O'Donnell wasn't sure the cameras were a good idea; however, he said they soon became a valuable tool.

"I really can't think of any downside even if you are catching misconduct," he said. "The vast majority of times, it shows the officers are in the right."

A 2005 report by the International Association of Chiefs of Police on cruiser cameras showed that 93 percent of the time when a complaint was filed regarding police conduct, the officers were exonerated when video evidence was available.

Lawsuits claiming officer brutality or other misdeeds cost departments cash as well. High-profile or big-payout cases make headlines, but several "he said, she said" cases - in which $2,000 to $10,000 are paid out in settlements - fly under the radar, yet can be costly. VIEVU's officer cameras cost about $900.

"A lot of communities would say the cost of cameras could save money in lawsuits," Mr. Sampson said.

ART: PHOTOS

PHOTOG: T&G Staff Photos/TOM RETTIG

CUTLINE; (1) West Brookfield Police Officer Edwin F. Ward patrols West Brookfield on a recent afternoon. A camera hangs in the front window of his vehicle. (2) The camera covers both the front and rear of the cruiser.
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Title Annotation:LOCAL NEWS
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Aug 1, 2011
Words:914
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