Seattle Exploring Point-of-View Cameras for Cops

The Seattle Police Department could become one of the first to try head- or body-mounted video cameras on police officers.

by / July 12, 2010
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"We have been aggressively exploring new means to assist our officers and improve public safety, and Seattle should consider the feasibility and usefulness of this technology." -- Council member Tim Burgess (pictured) chairman of the Public Safety and Education Committee.

The Seattle City Council is considering a pilot that would test first-person cameras mounted directly on police officers.

A City Council subcommittee met last week to discuss the idea, which was initiated by Council member Bruce Harrell. The City Council asked the city's Department of Information Technology to further study the body-mounted cameras.

If Seattle moves forward with the project, it would become one of the first municipalities in the nation to adopt such technology. One example is the San Jose (Calif.) Police Department, which began a small pilot of head-mounted cameras last year. The participating police officers were required to switch the cameras on when they're on duty in the field.

Like many police departments, Seattle already has put video cameras in its vehicle fleet, including marked cars.

Two vendors of the body- and head-mounted cameras -- Vievu and Taser International -- testified to the Seattle City Council about the devices' usefulness and potential as a cost-saver.

According to a Vievu representative, the Seattle Police Department Office of Professional Accountability took more than 1,400 complaints of officer misconduct in 2009, which cost $7.1 million in settlements, legal costs and administration.

Vievu said that when first-person cameras are attached to responding police officers, a study from the International Association of Chiefs of Police found that the number of misconduct complaints is cut by half when complainants learn that there's video evidence. That could equal a $3 million annual savings for Seattle, according to Vievu.

But Seattle would have to make a one-time investment for the technology. The units cost $1,000 or more a piece, and Seattle employs 1,300 officers.

There's also a "significant" expenditure for upkeep of back-end systems and data archiving of the video, said Seattle Police Assistant Chief Dick Reed, as evidenced by the city's past experience maintaining his force's 275 in-car cameras.

"Even if you added wearable cameras on top of the current deployment [of in-car cameras], you still need to think about integration of retrieval of that information," Reed said.

And there are other concerns that must be addressed, like privacy concerns voiced by officers and their buy-in of the system, Harrell said.

If Seattle has an advantage in studying such a video system, it's that a few other police departments have already done it.

Council member Tim Burgess, chairman of the Public Safety and Education Committee, said last month, "We have been aggressively exploring new means to assist our officers and improve public safety, and Seattle should consider the feasibility and usefulness of this technology. We now have the benefit of examining the deployment of cameras in other jurisdictions to determine the lessons learned and whether their application makes sense in Seattle."


Matt Williams Associate Editor