Why Don't More Cops Go to the Videotape?

It's time to equip police cars with video cameras.


Editor's Note: Steve Chapman is on vacation. The following column was originally published in December 2006.

One afternoon in November 2006, Houston Texans lineman Fred Weary was pulled over by Houston police for a traffic violation. The cops say he was belligerent and uncooperative. Weary's lawyer says he did as he was told.  What no one disputes is that the story had an unhappy ending. The officer shot him with a Taser before handcuffing and arresting him.

At times like this, wouldn't it be nice to know exactly what happened? Of course it would. It would also be easy—had the incident been captured by a video camera. But it wasn't, because the police car involved didn't have one. Video recording is one of the most extraordinary law enforcement tools ever invented, but despite years of availability, it is still grossly underused.

In the end, a judge dismissed the charges of resisting arrest. You could take that as proof that Weary was an innocent man who was unjustly mistreated—or you could take it as a symptom of how hard it is to prosecute a well-represented public figure based on nothing but a cop's testimony.

All this uncertainty might have been avoided had the patrol car been equipped with an in-dash camera, as some Houston police cruisers are. These devices can provide an invaluable record of what happens before and after a police officer makes a stop or arrest. But cost and inertia have deterred departments from the obvious step of putting them in every vehicle.

The advantages of video gadgets are many. They can document crimes and traffic offenses. They can refute claims of police misconduct or brutality. They can encourage restraint by both officers and citizens.

Where they have been used, they have proved their worth. In a three-month experiment with 74 Oakland, Calif., police officers, complaints were filed against 15 of the cops when they patrolled without video cameras. But when they were driving cars with cameras, there wasn't a single complaint filed against any of the 74.

Maybe that's because offenders don't make up tales of police abuse when they know the video record will expose the lie. Or maybe it's because police behave themselves when they know they're being watched. In any case, everyone ends up better off: Suspects get protection against abuse, and cops get protection from bogus allegations.

Yet many departments have to be dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century. Even though the infamous Rodney King affair put two cops in jail and cost the city a $3.8 million legal settlement, the Los Angeles Police Department couldn't bring itself to embrace modern technology until November 2006, when it announced it would install cameras in some 300 cars.

Chicago didn't get around to it until October 2006, and only 30 police cars—out of some 2,900—got the video gear. "A couple of hundred" of Houston's 1,400-plus cruisers are equipped with cameras, according to a spokesperson. As of 2003, the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics says, only about one of every five police cars in the United States had them.

Why so few? The easy explanation is that cameras don't come cheap. They cost from $2,500 to $10,000 apiece, plus expenses for training, storage and archiving, according to Jim Kuboviak, director of the Law Enforcement Mobile Video Institute.

But in this day and age, doing without cameras makes about as much sense as doing without guns or sirens. They ought to be considered standard equipment. It doesn't take too many lost convictions or damage payments to make the cost of video look like a bargain. Cities also save money because charges that might have been contested before are likely to produce quick guilty pleas when the incriminating facts are preserved in living color.

The payoff can be counted in more than dollars. In 1991, a county law enforcement officer stopped a car on a deserted road outside Garrison, Texas, only to be overpowered, beaten, and stabbed to death by the three occupants. Thanks to the videotape in his patrol car, the killers were caught and eventually convicted of murder.

It's safe to say that particular police department doesn't need to be persuaded of the value of video. In-car cameras are an unmatched asset for fighting crime and establishing truth. But only if they're used.