Captured Crime

The battery-powered camera, recorder, and microphone unit is tiny and attaches to the front of the officers' uniform. Marissabel Orozco of the Alhambra Police Department was testing it out as we rode with her for a few hours as part of our report on what police are calling 'body-worn cameras''. "I don't have a problem with it'', the ten-year veteran told me.

She says any cop who is out there doing the right thing should feel the same way. Orozco says she views it as a ''way to protect me against false allegations" and that's definitely one of the benefits of the camera. It sees and records high-quality video and audio of virtually everything in front of the wearer, in a wide angle. At the end of the shift, the video unit is popped into a fixed receiving station which automatically uploads the material to a secure site. The officers, in most cases, are allowed to view it, but they can't edit anything and they can't delete anything.

The idea is to both prevent false accusations from derailing officers and to reduce the amount of violence and mayhem directed at them. The camera, with its small, flashing red light on the front of a shirt, or on an eyeglass frame, or on a cap, is designed to act as a visual deterrent to mischief-makers since they have to know whatever they do is captured by the camera. That's why literally thousands of law enforcement agencies, big and small, are embracing the cameras and figuring out ways to buy them and all the storage needed to preserve this potential ''evidence'', sometimes for years.

One of the problems, if you will, is in the way the police departments choose to release, or not release as is more often the case, the video that might defuse controversy in, say, a shooting. The widely-publicized shooting this year of the unarmed homeless man, nicknamed Charlie Africa, on L.A.'s Skid Row outraged many. Police say he was reaching for one of their guns in a brief violent struggle and that body camera video absolutely shows that. Yet, the Los Angeles Police Department's policy is to not release that video, even if it might vindicate them and defuse tension. Peter Bibring, who heads up a department in the California American Civil Liberties Union called "Police Practices", thinks that's a big mistake. He says police departments, especially one like the LAPD with some problems in the past, can't just tell people "trust us.

We have the video and this is what it shows". He feels it needs to be released and available to a skeptical public. That may in fact happen down the road, as we're really just in the beginning stages of the widespread adaptation of this technology for law enforcement. Orozco says she's fine with it. She turns it on whenever she's getting out of her car, turns it off when she gets back in, even though for her and for most cops, the day is filled with the routine. Still, as she puts it: "You never know what you're going to get. ''

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