Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) police are beta testing clip-on video cameras that officials hope will increase transparency, accountability and ultimately protect officers from false complaints.

The test program has been running for the last couple of months. A camera — roughly the size of a mini-voice recorder — is worn on the front of a BART officer’s uniform. The camera records both audio and video and is activated by the officer as he or she interacts with the public.

Are the cameras a direct response to the July 3 shooting of Charles Hill by BART police and the 2009 killing of Oscar Grant by a BART officer? Kenton Rainey, BART police chief, said “yes and no.”

“Not just the shootings — it’s all incidents involving police-citizen contacts,” he explained. “There’s a very heightened awareness and scrutiny.”

That scrutiny has extended to BART’s decision two months ago to shut off the wireless communication system used by passengers ahead of a planned protest of the two officer-involved shootings.

Rainey said that BART is already a camera-rich environment, although he said there were certain blind spots in that coverage. The clip-on officer cameras offer a nice assist, Rainey said, by bringing an increased level of transparency to situations.

The beta test currently involves five cameras manufactured by Vievu. Once an officer’s shift is finished, anything he or she has recorded is downloaded into a secure, tamper-free storage system at the BART police station.

There isn’t any real-time monitoring of the camera feed, however. The footage is only accessed on a case-by-case basis depending on the situation.

“If someone was arrested and there was evidentiary value, it would be downloaded [from the storage system] and booked into evidence with that case,” Rainey said of the video footage. “If someone filed a complaint against an officer at a later date, we would be able to pull that video. That’s the thinking where we’re headed.”

Practical Challenges

While the wearable camera system sounds like a no-brainer, there are some hurdles to overcome. According to Rainey, chief among those issues is having a back-end system with enough storage capacity to handle camera data from the entirety of BART’s patrol officer force.

“It’s huge if you talk about outfitting all your personnel and recording their interactions,” Rainey said. “You have to have a way to retrieve it by officer, data and time. That’s the $64,000 question right now.”

Rainey added that BART Police’s IT staff and Vievu are discussing how the storage and retrieval process works in connection with BART’s network and are making sure that accessing the information isn’t labor intensive.

Another question for BART is how long footage should be stored. Rainey said that if a person alleged that a BART patrol officer had abused him or her and the footage had been deleted or was inaccessible, it would be a “huge problem.”

“We would lose the confidence of the public [and] that’s why you beta test these things before you plop down a lot of money,” Rainey said. “There’s no ‘do over’. It has to work.”

Looking Ahead

The beta test period of Vievu’s equipment is just about finished, but testing of cameras won’t end there. Rainey revealed that BART would be looking into and potentially testing another vendor’s camera system as well.

He said that ultimately, if BART police wanted to outfit all front-line personnel — patrol officers with the rank of sergeant or below — it would cost approximately $300,000 for all the cameras and the storage system. A federal grant would help supply the funding.

BART’s police chief was clear, however, that he favors having a system that records events that transpire between BART police and citizens.

“It protects you from false complaints, especially if you know you’re in a situation where someone is hostile and trying to cause conflict. You turn it on and it captures that interaction,” Rainey said, about the clip-on video cameras. “If that complaint comes in, you can say, ‘Don’t take my word, here is what happened.’”

Brian Heaton  |  Senior Writer

Brian Heaton is a senior writer for Government Technology. He primarily covers technology legislation and IT policy issues. Brian started his journalism career in 1999, covering sports and fitness for two trade publications based in Long Island, N.Y. He's also a member of the Professional Bowlers Association, and competes in regional tournaments throughout Northern California and Nevada.