OAKLAND -- Guns, radios and coming soon as tools of the trade, clip-on cameras.
Within a few weeks, every Oakland police patrol officer and those who have other street assignments will be wearing a cell phone-sized video camera that officials say should increase officer safety, allow better interaction with the public, reduce misconduct complaints and help gather evidence at crime scenes.
The City Council Public Safety Committee on Tuesday voted to recommend to the full council to spend $540,000 to purchase 350 video cameras, known as portable recording management systems that can be clipped onto uniforms. The full council will vote next Tuesday. The funds were already available for an in-car video system that no longer is in effect because of problems with the system and because the company that manufactured them went out of business.
The costs cover the cameras, computer equipment, software and computer database and installation of collection equipment. Images can be used for court testimony and Internal Affairs investigations.
The in-car system was part of the Negotiated Settlement Agreement that resulted from the Riders misconduct case. Replacing the in-car system with individual cameras not only follows the letter of the agreement but takes it a step further, police officials say.
Oakland Civil rights attorney John Burris, who represented plaintiffs in the Riders case and helped to craft the agreement, said the cameras have the potential to be a truth serum for the public as well as the police. The Riders case involved a group of rogue officers who faced accusations of beating and framing residents in West Oakland. Burris said the public often says one thing happens in an encounter with law enforcement, but that account may not be the whole story. "This could be a real eye-opener for them as well," he said.
"To the extent that we have an independent eye on the conduct of the police officers, that is a good thing," Burris added. The concern for Burris revolves around, "is it being used as it is intended? When is it on, when is it off? There needs to be a safety mechanism to make sure all the conduct it captures is not just conduct that benefits the officers."
Department spokesman Officer Jeff Thomason said the new technology can also provide evidence of crimes or attacks against officers, "streamline the truth-finding process by providing the best evidence" and encourage respectful treatment of all individuals contacted by police. It is hoped the cameras will "provide an additional layer of accountability and trust between the police and the public," he said.
He said what is recorded, whether good or bad for officers, can be used as a training tool and will work better than the in-car systems, which officials said failed to capture everything.
Fifteen traffic and other officers are testing the new cameras now, Thomason said.
He said the official policy about camera use is still being worked out. It will include training procedures and when they must be activated, like for car stops, walking stops, and responding to major incidents. He said the cameras are programmed so that anything filmed cannot be deleted or altered. He said there is only an on and off switch and a plug that allows data recorded to be downloaded to a server. The cameras record audio and video.
Thomason said officers don't have to tell anyone they come in contact with that they are being filmed since there is no expectation of privacy by the public in such a situation.
Not long ago it was reported that the cities of Cambell, Union City and Brentwood invested in similar video systems that also only allow for the cameras to be turned on and don't offer a way for content to be deleted.
Staff writer Cecily Burt contributed to this story.