Watching the watchers: on cops, cameras and privacy

We’ve talked a lot about federal government surveillance enabled by technology lately, now we turn our attention to tech’s effect on local surveillance.

Increasingly, police can record their encounters with suspects. The New York Times looks again at this issue in the wake of a judge’s order in the stop-and-frisk case in New York a couple of weeks ago that NYPD officers in certain areas wear cameras. Surprise — this brings up privacy issues, and some cops don’t like to be watched while they’re working.

But cities that have outfitted their officers with cameras — such as those embedded in their sunglasses or attached to their lapels — say they benefit both police and citizens. The devices have cut down on complaints against police as well as the use of police force. William Bratton, former top dog of the NYPD and LAPD, sees the cameras as a way to minimize the “he-said-she-said” aspect of police and citizen interaction, according to the NYT report.

California cities that have such programs in place include Rialto and Oakland. The judge mentioned above pointed to Rialto, a Southern California city with 66 officers in its department, as a successful model when she ruled in the New York case. In 2010, Oakland bought 350 cameras for $540,000, or about $1,500 each — partly in response to a high-profile police misconduct case, the Oakland Tribune reported. (The cameras, of course, can work against officers. But police there also pointed to the recordings as potential training tools.) Back to the costs: The NYPD has about 35,000 uniformed officers. The cameras now cost up to $900 each.

“It’s definitely not cheap,” Paul Figueroa, an assistant chief with the Oakland Police Department, told the NYT. “But over the long term, just from a liability and management perspective, it’s definitely an investment that’s worth it.”

What do civil liberties groups have to say about all this? One lawyer for the ACLU of Southern California told the NYT he is generally supportive of the wearable cameras, saying privacy concerns “can be addressed by strong privacy policies.” The New York Civil Liberties Union supported the judge’s order in the stop-and-frisk case. But the Oakland attorney who represented the plaintiffs in the police-misconduct case told the Tribune in 2010 that he was concerned about how the information recorded would be used, echoing other groups’ concerns. Oakland, for example, keeps video recordings indefinitely.


Photo: Officer Jon Low of the Oakland Police Department wears a lapel-mounted video camera in 2010.  (Jane Tyska/Oakland Tribune archives)


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