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Galax police recording citizen interactions

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By Shannon Watkins

Is more surveillance better or worse where the police are concerned?

There is a popular trend of people recording video of officers, but what if it goes both ways?

It’s a relevant question, as the Galax Police Department has recently acquired cameras that record video and audio of interactions with the public. The devices are worn by officers on duty.

“It’s made by a company out of Texas,” said Capt. James Cox. “It’s capable of recording video, still photos, audio recordings, as well as tracking the latitude and longitude where those recordings were taken, so when we play back a video file or look at a still picture that was captured with the device, we can plot on a map where that was captured at.”

While there’s currently no legal requirement for officers to carry cameras, Galax is doing it because, according to Police Chief Rick Clark, “It’s an information society. We perceive that it’s going to be a great evidentiary tool.”

The cameras were put into use a little over a week ago.

“I was here Saturday night and an officer showed me a video of an arrest,” noted Clark. “He said, ‘Now I have the capability of showing the judge how this guy reacted, how he resisted.’”

The video cameras in the booking area don’t record sound, but the devices worn by officers do. “If someone alleges officer misconduct, we can review it. It either exonerates the officer immediately, or it gives us cause for concern or action.”

Clark and Cox see the cameras as beneficial: the specifics of an interaction can be captured, showing whether a suspect is cooperative or whether an officer is abusive. Neither thinks there’s much cause for concern, but feel it’s a good tool to have on patrol.

Perhaps the most famous capture of a police-suspect interaction gone wrong is the Rodney King videotape, which Clark addresses with no hesitation.

“It was despicable, what happened to Rodney King, and to others,” he said. “I don’t suspect that’s ever happened here. But we’ll spot check, between the two of us. How many times do you see police misconduct on YouTube? People are recording us. Now there’s two views. And we won’t edit ours. We’ll show the whole video.”

According to Cox, each shift sergeant has to watch a few files randomly from each officer on a monthly basis, but the files will all be retained for up to five years on a server so if one of the interactions that hasn’t been reviewed gets a complaint, it can be called up and watched to see if the complaint is valid. “We can tag items to save longer,” said Cox. “Routine stuff will be deleted off, but we anticipate being able to save a long time.”

The files are secure and can’t be deleted or altered, Cox said. “The device captures data as far as what has happened to the file, if it stopped and started, latitude longitude, date, time. It has a unique ID in it that identifies it as a specific officer’s, and of course if you have more than one officer present, you get more than one view of that incident.”

The cameras will be used in any interaction with a citizen, Cox said, “from the time we get out of our car until the time the transaction is over.”

The cameras are to be turned on at the start of any interaction; if they’re not, it has to be reported and documented that there was a problem or that the officer forgot.

Both Clark and Cox say the officers like the small camera models chosen and so far are remembering to turn them on in plenty of time.

The cameras, which also double as radio mikes, were purchased through a grant from the attorney general’s office. The Virginia Municipal League gave out body cameras a few years ago, but after about three basic traffic stops the hard drive was full. The new cameras hold up to eight hours of video with a 32G hard drive. They are not automatic; the officer must turn it on manually at the beginning of the interaction.

As for the privacy of those being recorded, officers aren’t required to mention or make the cameras known when interacting with the public, Clark pointed out. “In Virginia, as long as one party to the conversation is aware that it’s being recorded, you do not have to advise the other party,” he said. “[But] if they ask, we tell.”

“We don’t hide it,” added Cox. “And it’s a great training tool for us, too, because we’re viewing these videos on a periodic basis. We can see things we may need to address in training, and our people skills. A lot of the time it’s not what you say to the person, it’s the way that you say it, the way you approach it. And those are things you can identify with individual officers, and point out to hopefully enhance the police-citizen contact and make it a little easier.”

WHAT DO YOU THINK?

• ARE YOU COMFORTABLE WITH POLICE OFFICERS RECORDING CITIZENS THEY INTERACT WITH?
• WILL IT HELP PROVE OR DISPROVE CLAIMS AGAINST BOTH POLICE AND CITIZENS?
• IS IT AN INVASION OF PRIVACY?
• SHOULD OFFICERS HAVE TO TELL CITIZENS THEY ARE BEING RECORDED?

CALL THE HOTLINE:
(276) 236-5178, EXT 6
WRITE A LETTER: P.O. BOX 68, GALAX, VA 24333 (LETTERS MUST BE SIGNED)
E-MAIL: NEWS@GALAXGAZETTE.COM