Congress escalated its calls for more transparency in law enforcement in the wake of the Aug. 9 shooting of teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., suggesting body cameras for police officers might improve public safety.
The District of Columbia government, however, has been looking at the technology for more than a year. Capitol Police have also been keeping tabs on the new technology.
Beginning Oct. 1, approximately 165 officers from the Metropolitan Police Department will be patrolling the District of Columbia outfitted with sleek recording devices that attach to their shoulders, head or chest. The pilot program has a $1 million budget and is expected to last six months. It involves officers from all seven police districts testing five camera models from three different vendors. Mayor Vincent Gray and MPD Chief Cathy Lanier announced the details of the program Wednesday during a press conference in the John A. Wilson building, accompanied by three police officers sporting the new equipment. Gray slipped on a pair of the sunglasses equipped with a head camera and smiled for the media. The mayor boasted that D.C. is "at the cutting edge" of police technology, compared to departments around the nation.
"Even though we've been working on the pilot for months, there are people who have already asked me if the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, was the motivation or impetus for this, and to what extent community response to that around the country motivated our efforts," Gray said.
"Let me make it clear," he continued, explaining that his administration believes that cameras have a role in helping to prevent and solve crimes, and that leaders had been working towards rollout of the pilot program "long before" the shooting occurred.
Police in New Jersey and Florida have started wearing body cameras, and the Los Angeles Police Department launched its own trial in January. In the past few years, thousands of small and medium-size departments have been using the technology.
On the Hill, Capitol Police have not requested funding for body cameras, but there appears to be some interest in recording interactions.
Jim Konczos, chairman of the Capitol Police Labor Committee's executive board, said he has been following the New York Police Department's rollout of a pilot body camera program. In early September, the nation's largest department announced they would launch a test.
"Our officers interact with thousands of people on a daily basis, and while most intend no harm to the officers or the community, there are others that do," Konczos told CQ Roll Call. He said the cameras would not only help with complaints, "it would be an excellent tool as evidence for any arrests that find their way through the judicial system."
Konczos said he has not discussed cameras with Chief Kim C. Dine, and the department did not have an official comment on potential use of the technology. Security cameras are widely used throughout Capitol Hill.
In the District, police are still looking at the best practices for implementing the devices. When practical, officers will be required to give notice to citizens that they are recording interactions.
Lanier said the video footage will be helpful in investigating complaints against the police. She emphasized that the new technology would significantly reduce the burden on supervisors, who are sometimes pulled off the street for several days to conduct investigations and write reports.
Video footage from the body camera would be preserved for 90 days, then destroyed unless it was needed to investigate complaints against the police department. Lanier said other departments had seen complaints fall by an average of 80 percent as a result of the technology.
"What we've seen from police departments around the country, is they've been able to decrease the size of their internal affairs bureaus by up to half because the complaints have dropped so dramatically," she said.
In New York, the $60,000 cost of beginning the program was paid for by the nonprofit Police Foundation.
Chief Jim Bueermann, president of the Police Foundation, testified to a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs panel convened to examine the police response to Ferguson in support of equipping officers around the nation with body cameras. At the time, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., expressed interest in expanding their use.
For D.C., costs of implementing a more permanent body camera program would depend on the equipment selected and the price of servers for data storage. Police envision it would take two or three years to expand the program to the entire agency.
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