So far, so good for police car cameras
A closeup of the classroom model of a camera that is part of the system that will be mounted in over 200 City of Pittsburgh Police Cruisers. The L3 Communications camera can record digitally for 16 hours straight.
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Police officials and legal experts are giving early praise to video cameras that have silently observed the city's streets for about a year through the windshields of many police cruisers.
Officers in marked squad cars and wagons from the Highland Park station have operated the cameras without any major problems, Zone 5 Cmdr. Timothy O'Connor said. And more officers are training to use them.
Footage can help when complaints are filed against officers and has been a useful as evidence in several recent police chases, he said, though it remains to be seen whether it will secure convictions in those cases.
Forward-facing and mounted on the windshield, the cameras automatically roll when the cruiser's light bar activates, if it exceeds certain speeds or is involved in an accident. An officer can turn it on himself but cannot alter footage once it is taped. Sound is recorded through a microphone about the size of a pager that attaches to an officer's uniform.
"I would say it's been mostly smooth sailing with regard to the cameras in the car," Cmdr. O'Connor said.
"Initially, we had some people who were hesitant to have a camera in their vehicle, but all change brings with it a degree of discomfort. After a year, we're fairly well adjusted to using them."
The city has about 300 vehicles in its fleet, 90 of which have cameras already, Cmdr. Linda Barone said. Officers in the West End station began using them last month and those in the North Side and Hill District stations are up next.
With the addition of the cameras, the bureau joins dozens of other police departments in the state that have had such technology for years.
After months of testing different models, the bureau chose one by L-3 Communications, based in New York City, that allows footage to be stored on Zip drives instead of cumbersome DVDs and lets officers operate the device from equipment housed in the center console rather than in the trunk. Footage is remotely uploaded when an officer drives within 300 feet of his station.
Supervisors regularly review footage, and it aids officers in writing reports, police said.
Each unit costs about $5,600. Hardware in each station costs an additional $10,000 and a main server to store footage costs $15,000.
The funding comes from a mix of city and federal grant dollars, Cmdr. Barone said. Officers in the South Side and Squirrel Hill stations will get the cameras when more money becomes available.
Some officers said that they were initially concerned the cameras and microphones would unfairly be used as a tool for discipline, but police union President Dan O'Hara said that hasn't been the case.
"To my knowledge, discipline hasn't been forthcoming from these things," he said. "If you're doing everything right, you shouldn't have concerns about having a camera in the car. ... In the long run, it's going to prove itself to be a protection for us."
Defense attorneys who have handled cases involving footage from in-car cameras said it is much stronger evidence than unreliable witness testimony and often aids prosecutors. Attorney Bill Difenderfer called it "the most damning evidence in the world for a defendant."
"There's nothing like the evidence being on film like that," said University of Pittsburgh law professor David Harris. "All the prosecution has to do is turn on the tape and it's over."
First Published March 9, 2011 12:00 am