BELLINGHAM - City police will soon begin testing body-mounted cameras that can provide audio and video records of encounters between patrol officers and the public.
Patrol Lt. Mike Johnston said the small video units can be mounted on a helmet, hat or collar, but the best approach may be an eyeglass-mounted version that would track the officer's own line of sight.
The department has three cameras that will be field-tested to see if they perform as advertised. No decision has been made on whether to adopt them, Police Chief Clifford Cook told the City Council at a recent committee session.
If the city decides to buy the cameras, they will cost $1,200 each. The cameras are made by Taser International, best-known for its electronic stun guns.
Johnston said patrol officers are having mixed reactions to the new technology.
"They're willing to give it a try, and that's all we're asking," he said. "I choose to look at it more as a tool for officer safety. It protects the public, but it protects the officers."
Chad Cristelli, president of the Bellingham Police Guild, said officers see some advantages to the cameras.
"The guild is supportive of the test and evaluation process that Chief Cook has proposed," Cristelli said in an email. "Currently our primary concern is the added time the video might take to review and download. This time could impact officers' unassigned time patrolling our city's neighborhoods. We are committed to working out these and other logistical issues as they come up."
Johnston noted that police recently had to rely on private video in the wake of the Laurel Street riot and the police shooting of an attacking pit bull at the Bellingham skate park.
Cristelli said patrol officers would prefer to have their own video records when similar events happen.
"We feel the public could have benefited in further understanding our duties and the dangers Bellingham officers face daily had we had our video to share," Cristelli said.
The police department in Rialto, Calif. - population about 100,000 - tested the technology extensively for 12 months beginning in February 2012. At the end of the test period, researchers found that police officers' use of force was reduced more than 50 percent when officers wore cameras, compared to a control group of Rialto officers not equipped with the cameras.
Researchers expressed their belief that the cameras changed police behavior, but they also acknowledged that people who have encounters with police may be less likely to become rowdy when they know their actions are being recorded.
After the test results were in, Rialto police bought the cameras and required all officers to use them. Other departments are following suit. In September 2013, the Spokane City Council unanimously approved spending $730,000 to buy 220 cameras plus a number of "smart" Taser stun devices that automatically make recordings when the weapons are used.
In August 2013, U.S. District Court Judge Shira Scheindlin ordered New York City police to begin testing the cameras as part of a sweeping ruling that found the city's "stop-and-frisk" police practices were violating the civil rights of blacks and Hispanics.
Johnston said Bellingham officers testing the devices will give people notice when the cameras are in use. He noted that the cameras have a four-hour battery life, and officers on a shift that exceeds 10 hours won't keep them on constantly. Instead, they will be switched on whenever the officer believes an altercation might occur. They might also be routinely used on traffic stops.
The cameras would not typically be turned on when an officer is talking to someone who is reporting a crime, Johnston said.
At the Monday, Dec. 16, council session, Chief Cook observed that the recordings obtained by officers would also be useful evidence in many criminal cases, in an era when juries expect airtight cases because of what Cook called "the CSI effect."
While the decision to purchase the devices has not been made, it was clear that Cook and Mayor Kelli Linville are inclined to support them.
"I believe we need this for our officers' benefit, for our community's benefit," Cook told the council.
Linville said civil libertarians favor the devices as a way to keep officers accountable, and they also benefit law enforcement. She said the recordings "protect our police officers when they are doing their jobs, and our citizens when they are interacting with the police."
Cook said some departments have turned to the cameras as a way to crack down on perceived problems with police behavior, as in New York. He emphasized that that was not the case in Bellingham, and that citizen complaints against the department are rare here.
"We need to be out in front and take advantage of the technology for the right reasons," he said.
Sample video of the AVON Flex camera in use during a chase at night, provided by Taser International.