Criminal Justice

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.


NEXT: Kick Him When He's Down

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  1. good morning reason

    1. Morning, Suki!

  2. Robert Culp has died at the age of 79.

  3. Again, how does Suki, who makes the same comment every time, get early access to Reason content? This just showed up for me, but Suki posted 90 minutes ago…

    1. Well, there’s pretty much always a story that pops up at 7:00am EST. I’m guessing that it’s either a glitch or that the lead stories are kept in a nonpublic part of the site that Suki found the url to.

      That or it’s magic.

      1. Or time travel.

        1. Time travel is magic.

          1. I’m suprised you don’t just say FIRST like everyone else that posts first.

            1. Saying a banal, asinine comment like “morning Reason,” is worse than saying first, cause he’s trying to come off as nice, not an annoying spammer.

    2. You don’t want to know what Suki had to do for that overweight, sweaty techie to get early access.

      The horror…..the horror….

      1. It still gives me shivers.

        Soon to be on Pay Per View.

  4. I heard a story this morning on NPR about Google leaving China. Now YouTube is down. Coincidence? Or a first strike from the Yellow Peril?

    1. Googling YouTube down gets you the “Latest results for youtube down” scrolling Twitter panic. Fascinating.

  5. Every cop I’ve ever met loves these cameras. Some also carry a pen voice recorder to fight false accusations, especially if the city won’t spring for cameras.

  6. No, youtube really is down – not working for me here in PA either.

    1. Here too. It was out for a while last night and then had been working up until awhile ago.

    2. Google video search still links to you tube.

    3. The Twitter feeds are great. Three themes have emerged:

      1) Is it China?
      2) Now productivity will go up!
      3) Is it out where you are, or is it just me?

      1. If I had a Twitter account I’d add this to the conversation, just to see what would happen: Alert! Missiles detected over the Arctic. Repeat: Missiles over the Arctic. DEFCON 1.

        1. I’ll post this on mine. After I post about the wide spread power outages reported in the Midwest.

          1. Please add that the President will be making an emergency broadcast.

            1. It’s back! Take that, China.
              USA! USA! USA!

              1. Yep. Right after I posted the Missiles one it was back up.

                Damn YT. This could have been fun.

            2. “This is John Galt speaking. . .”

              1. Does John Galt have a Twitter account? I wonder how many tweets it would take to cover the whole speech?

          2. Kyle! Get up there and piss in that radiator, boy! We’re runnin’ out time!

  7. They cost from $2,500 to $10,000 a piece…

    Jesus, do they need special cameras for some reason? You can get a Canon GL2 for $2,500, and that’s a damn good camcorder.

  8. The tech is here to put digital video on the officers’ person, but I don’t know of anybody doing it.

  9. I’d think a digital video camera like this clipped to the officer’s chest and fed to a hard drive on his belt that could hold 24 hours of data would be even better and maybe cheaper than the car cameras.

    I think a lot of the resistance by police unions and management to this kind of constant surveillance is that they actually believe normal police behavior cant stand up to such surveillance.

    1. You know that they have services that let you upload camera feeds (say, from your phone) in realtime now, right? I saw a guy use something called qik and was blown away by how well it seemed to work. Having a backup of video on the belt is great, but that alone would make it easier for police to destroy evidence. Having it be uploaded to an agency that is neither accountable to the police, nor physically near their jurisdiction would do wonders to prevent tampering. Granted, they could always turn off the camera, but it’s better than nothing.

    2. My guess is because normal police behavior can’t stand up to such surveillance.

      Wait a minute: shouldn’t cops be the only ones to review coppish behaviors?

  10. I want police cruisers to videotape every stop and I want every minute of every interrogation viddied and provided to the defense.

    Of course you’ve got to be smart enough to buy equipment that works.

  11. So long as any arrest or interrogation that is not videotaped is inadmissable as evidence, I’m in.

    What I don’t want to see is only the videotape that helps the cops, with the videotape that hurts the prosecution mysteriously missing.

    1. This is the key. The cameras need to explicitly be to provide evidence both of scumbag cops and non-cops.

    2. An excellent point.

    3. Bingo. Doyathink that might be why cameras aren’t “standard equipment” yet??

  12. Doctors should use video on consultations too. To avoid “victims” teling plaintiff’s attorney: “No, Dr. XYZ never told my mom that this operation was experimental, quite dangerous, and 60% likely to have an adverse outcome.”

    1. Somehow I doubt it will work. I mean, law already seems to have deteriorated to the point where someone can say, “Sure, I signed the contract, but you can’t expect me to have understood it” and get away with that, so I doubt video would help…

      1. I agree. When a lawyer like John Edwards can become a multi-millionaire by using bogus science and channeling unborn babies, a videotape of a consult is not going to make much difference.

  13. Police = Federal bailout of the donut industry.

    1. Speeding tickets = bolstering profits of the auto insurance industry

  14. An ex-teacher coworker of mine wants these things in our schools. Parents would know exactly what was going on in those walls: who the bad and good apples were. The ACLU and unions would probably fight it to death though.

    1. It’s public property, ie no right to privacy. I don’t see the problem other than the funding.

      1. It is public property where children are required by law to be until a certain age. I have big problems with cameras in schools. It’s just one more tool to teach kids to submit to authority.

        1. Maybe. If the cameras were added to teacher interactions with students it would be similar to the situation with cops.

          That is, adding cameras everywhere results in a net increase in surveillance. However, adding cameras where surveillance already clearly exists (ie, when you’re in direct contact with agents of the state) doesn’t actually add more surveillance, it just makes it more truthful.

        2. Grasshopper, one must learn the rules before one may effectively break the rules.

      2. Do you support random locker searches/searches without cause (or very light cause?)

    2. And everyone who views the webcams will have their IP addys traced and be charged with a sex crime or voyeurism.

  15. The AXON camera system is the one you want. All the action as seen from the perspective of the officer. Car cameras very often do not show what is really happening

    1. I am sure the cops know exactly what can and cannot be seen from the car cameras.

      1. See @R=Train above: “Grasshopper, one must learn the rules before one may effectively break the rules.” Of course they know what can be seen from the car cameras.

  16. A trespassing and vandalizing neighbor prompted me to install security cams at home.

    When that neighbor calls the police on me (about twice a week) it’s just amazing how many cops blind the cameras with flashlights or try to avoid them.

    1. You need a better (smaller) system or to do a better job hiding them in say, the welcome sign on the wall.

    2. so some dude messes with your property, and then calls the cops on you? Time for you to call the health department on him.

  17. Every meeting between cop and public should be video taped. Certainly for their own protection against frivolous accusations, but mostly for mine against having multiple rights violated simultaneously. The police, more than any other entity, can fuck your day up. Jail. Subsequent persecu, er, prosecutions. Beatings.

    That shit needs to stop.

    1. Absolutely true. Police are to serve the public, not the other way around. All authority is to serve the public – and if it does not, it needs replacing, from boardroom to squad car.

    2. With power comes responsibility. Or at least, it is supposed to work that way. Without videotapes, a cop having a bad day can mess up your life. Especially if one of his buddies is there to cover for him.

  18. I believe more citizens should own cameras and carry them at all times rather than using tax money to fund the police department with video footage they’ll more than likely not use if something terrible happened. “Oh that was one of the cruisers without a camera”.

    Not to mention editing.

    However, if the citizens buy these video cameras for $100-500 they’ll be set. It is good for personal business, doesn’t cost anything in taxes, and it arms the population.

    Baltimore Cop Vs. Skater proves this quite well.

    youtube it 😉

  19. carrying personal cameras would be great, except when the cop or whoever has the violence advantage tells you to hand it over then destroys it.

    1. Surveillence is worse for people who have something to lose who do things they don’t want people to see.

      If a tape of me drunk in public or smoking a joint or getting a blow job surfaces.. I feel no guilt, even though I broke the law.

      If I film a police officer buying a prostitute, he’s fucked.

      That’s my point.. the more citizens that carry cameras and have home surveillence, the safer they will be around people who attempt to exploit them. .. just like the baltimore cop who was filmed beating up the skater kid and didn’t know it was being recorded (and the kid was standing right next to him ‘cos the cop thought it was earphones)

  20. It’s public property, ie no right to privacy. I don’t see the problem other than the funding

  21. Many years after receiving my graduate degree, I returned to the State University of New York at Binghamton as a faculty member. One day in a crowded elevator, someone remarked on its inefficiency. I said the elevators had not changed in the 20 years since I began there as a student.
    thomas sabo When the door finally opened, I felt a compassionate pat on my back, and turned to see an elderly nun smiling at me. “You’ll get that degree, dear,” she whispered. “Perseverance is a virtue.”????

  22. “They cost from $2500, to $10,000 a piece”. WTF? Hello, these aren’t production grade units, someone is getting ripped off royally. Or, this is just a cheap excuse. Speaking of cheap, wearable video recorders are real cheap, so there’s no excuse why cops can’t wear their monitoring devices. And it should be mandatory they do, for public safety, more than anything else.

  23. My only point is that if you take the Bible straight, as I’m sure many of Reasons readers do, you will see a lot of the Old Testament stuff as absolutely insane. Even some cursory knowledge of Hebrew and doing some mathematics and logic will tell you that you really won’t get the full deal by just doing regular skill english reading for those books. In other words, there’s more to the books of the Bible than most will ever grasp. I’m not concerned that Mr. Crumb will go to hell or anything crazy like that! It’s just that he, like many types of religionists, seems to take it literally, take it straight…the Bible’s books were not written by straight laced divinity students in 3 piece suits who white wash religious beliefs as if God made them with clothes on…the Bible’s books were written by people with very different mindsets…in order to really get the Books of the Bible, you have to cultivate such a mindset, it’s literally a labyrinth, that’s no joke.

  24. “The size of the lie is a definite factor in causing it to be believed, for the vast masses of the nation are in the depths of their hearts more easily deceived than they are consciously and intentionally bad. The primitive simplicity of their minds renders them a more easy prey to a big lie than a small one, for they themselves often tell little lies but would be ashamed to tell a big one.”

  25. Well said. Tucker is despicable, Crossfire became despicable (despite the presence of supposed “heavyweights” like Novack and Carville), and Jon Stewart is a comedian who has never proclaimed himself to be anything else. Just because certain people here don’t understand how satire works doesn’t change that fact. The fact that The Daily Show has gained some cultural traction doesn’t change that.

  26. Even if you go on his website, it’s still just a a ten minute discussion. The interview with Jim Cramer simply amounted to Jim sputtering something every couple of minutes while John wagged his finger at him the whole time. I’ve never seen him have an intelligent discussion with anybody, and he only talks to people that he knows he can bully into a corner. Usually idiots, yes, but it’s still dispicable. I don’t watch him that often, but it is people like him that make me wretch. The fact that people go around saying “He slammed so and so” in that “debate” pisses me off. John’s not directly responsible for that, but he certainly plays his audience to get that effect.

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