Why don't more cops go to the tape?
One afternoon in November, Houston police pulled over Houston Tex-ans lineman Fred Weary on 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 a video camera captured the incident. But it didn't, because the police car involved didn't have one. Video recording is one of the most extraordinary law enforcement tools ever in-vented, but despite years of availability, not nearly enough departments use it.
In the end, a judge dismissed the charges of resisting arrest. You could take that as proof that Weary was an innocent man whom police treated unjustly 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 avoidable if the patrol car had an in-dash camera, as some Houston police cruisers do. 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 police have used them, they have proven their worth. In a three-month experiment with 74 Oakland, Calif., police officers, 15 of the cops were subjects of complaints when they patrolled without video cameras. But when they were driving cars with cameras, not a single one of the 74 received a complaint.
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 the camera is on them. In any case, everyone ends up better off: Suspects get protection against abuse, and cops get protection from bogus allegations.
Yet we have to drag many departments 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 this past month, when it announced it would install cameras in 300 cars.
Chicago didn't get around to it until two months ago, and only 30 police cars out of 2,900 will get the video gear. "A couple of hundred" of Houston's 1,400-plus cruisers have 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 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 people might have contested before are likely to produce quick guilty pleas when the incriminating facts show up in living color.
The payoff amounts to more than dollars. In 1991, a county law enforcement officer stopped a car on a deserted road outside Garrison, Texas, only to have the three occupants overpower him, and beat and stab him to death.
Thanks to the videotape in his patrol car, authorities caught the killers and eventually convicted them of murder.
It's safe to say that particular police department doesn't need a sales pitch about the value of video. In-car cameras are an unmatched asset for fighting crime and establishing truth. But only if police use them.