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PULLMAN, Wash. — Amateur videos of police officers doing their jobs have become part of the fabric of urban democracy, with embarrassing or violent images spreading via social media in minutes.
But more police agencies, especially after the unrest following an unarmed teenager’s shooting in Ferguson, Mo., are recording events with small body-mounted cameras.
In just the last few weeks, law enforcement agencies in at least a dozen cities, including Ferguson; Flagstaff, Ariz.; Minneapolis; Norfolk, Va.; and Washington, have said they are equipping officers with video cameras. Miami Beach approved the purchase of $3 million worth of cameras for police officers, parking enforcement workers, and building and fire inspectors.The New York Police Department, the nation’s largest urban force, has studied how Los Angeles is incorporating body cameras and is planning its own pilot project. A law in New Jersey, signed this month, requires all municipal police departments to buy car-mounted or body cameras, and creates a new fine on drunken drivers to help pay for it. And the United States Border Patrol, with more than 21,000 agents, recently said it would start testing cameras this year.
The experience of the police in this college town in eastern Washington provides a glimpse of how the technology is used.
Shane Emerson, a barrel-chested police officer with a shaved head, was responding to a report of inebriated students — not an unusual assignment here. Friends of the youths rushed up as he began his questioning, brandishing their cellphones and telling him that they were recording the encounter.
“Cool,” Officer Emerson said. “I am, too.”
The shift has been sudden and seismic, primarily because various interests, often opposed, have lined up in support of the idea. Liability-conscious city attorneys say the cameras could help in lawsuits; rights groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, say police accountability will be bolstered by another layer of public documentation; and the Justice Department, surveying 63 police departments that were using body cameras and many others that were not,concluded in a report this month that the technology had the potential to “promote the perceived legitimacy and sense of procedural justice” in interactions between the public and law enforcement.
But the spread of police body cameras is also raising concerns about what is recorded, when and how video might be released to the public, and how the millions of hours of video will be archived and protected from leaks and hackers. Some police unions worry that videos could become tools of management, used by higher-ups to punish an officer they do not like, or that private conversations among officers could go public.
The rising use of cameras has put the police in a complex and uncertain landscape of public records law.
In Oregon, for instance, state law requires notification. Would that mean officers wearing body cameras have to yell warnings — “You’re being recorded!” — as they run into violent situations?
“If they don’t yell it, is everything on there now the fruit of the poisonous tree?” asked Sgt. Peter Simpson, a spokesman for the Portland police department, referring to the legal doctrine that improperly gathered evidence can taint an entire case and may not be used in court. The Portland department is testing body cameras on six officers, with plans for a departmentwide rollout.
Here in Washington State, which has one of the nation’s most vigorous public records laws, the Seattle police are wrestling with whether video can be posted online almost immediately, as a nearly real-time documentary, and how to blur or obscure images to protect the identities of victims or informers. A pilot project that had been set for the summer was postponed partly because of questions about how public access to the recordings would work.
Storage, management and retrieval of the collected data create mammoth questions of their own. Private companies like Taser International offer document storage services, along with the cameras, batteries, docking stations and software, but state laws vary widely about how long criminal records must be stored, from a few years for most misdemeanors to in perpetuity for major felonies.
In Texas, the Fort Worth police have one of the largest camera programs and have spent more than $3 million so far, a department spokeswoman said in an email. That includes more than 600 cameras and accessories, and storage bills for 64 terabytes of data a year, an amount equivalent to at least three times the contents of the 20 million cataloged books in the Library of Congress.
Privacy concerns are compounded by what Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst at the A.C.L.U., called a “wild West situation” of uncertain rules and policies. The A.C.L.U. supports the expansion of police video, Mr. Stanley said, because of the potential for a new check-and-balance system on police action. But constraints are crucial, too, he said, to create safeguards against a file’s being digitally altered. He also wants limits established for when video might be used as open-ended surveillance — scoured later by analytic software for patterns that an officer might have missed.
But the biggest wrinkle, police and legal experts say, is also perhaps the most simple: human nature. People forget to turn cameras on or forget to turn them off.
Gary Jenkins, the chief of police in Pullman, said he feared there would be a day when recording did not happen, for whatever reason, and something went horribly wrong — like the Aug. 9 fatal shooting of Michael Brown, 18, by a policeman in Ferguson. In places where police mistrust is already rife, the failure to document — where documentation is expected — might then become its own new tinderbox.
But some proponents suggest that cameras can change the behavior of the police and ordinary citizens alike. In the year after Rialto, Calif., began a test of cameras in 2012, for example, citizen complaints dropped to three from 24, while the use of force fell to 25 incidents from 61. Chief Tony Farrar said in an interview that he was convinced there was a direct connection.
Which videos should be archived is its own question. Here in Pullman on a recent weeknight, three police officers arrived at a fire station where an agitated man was shouting about his blood pressure. He had thrown his keys onto the station house roof and told the police officers surrounding him — their hands near their weapon belts in postures of tense readiness — that failure to address his medical condition would get them all into serious trouble. He had a senator’s contact information on his cellphone, he said.
The cameras were running.
In the end, the man’s behavior was not deemed a threat to himself or others. No arrest was made, no criminal file created and thus no video public record entered of those minutes in the firehouse. An automatic 100-day delete clock on the tapes clicked in as the man stomped out into the night. Departmental policy requires that a video file be tagged for storage only when a case file is created, but officers have discretion to save for other purposes too, like training.
Heidi Lambley, a senior officer with 10 years on the Pullman force — and one of the responders that night — said a video record felt to her almost like another level of protection, a kind of flak jacket of evidence about what happened, even if it was nothing much.
“I get nervous when I think it’s not on,” she said of her camera. “I know it’s going to document what the truth is, and I want the truth out there.”