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Tuesday
Mar302010

Video cameras in cars make some cops uncomfortable


[From Video cameras in cars make some cops uncomfortable :: CHICAGO SUN-TIMES :: Metro & Tri-State]

The Sun-Times has a story on video cameras in police cars. There are 340 police cars with cameras installed (there are 4,000 vehicles under the CPD). The cameras are pointed "out of the front window and the other aimed at the back seat, where prisoners are transported. Audio is recorded on traffic stops, but not on other types of street stops."


The interesting part is that the camera system is more about watching police than the public. At one point, officers could turn the cameras off. After all, who wants to have a camera on them while they are working, especially under the conditions police officers have to operate in. The CPD has changed the camera setup, so now supervisors will receive an "electronic alert when an officer is patrolling with a turned-off camera. Eventually this year, new hardware will tie the cameras to the ignition. The cameras will turn on when the key is turned, and they will stay on for an hour even if the car is turned off."


Another technology that is watching the police in Chicago are the GPS units in police cars. They can determine the following several times a minute: Engine on or off, Idling in place, Parked, Speed, Emergency Equipment activation, and Location. This information is available to police dispatch as well as supervisors (even on their Blackberry).


This story is less about the technology in cars, but how police work is joining a growing set of jobs done under surveillance. While we can think of cameras as neutral, this doesn't tell the entire story. The cameras affect how people are managed and how they do their jobs. The cameras cut into the autonomy given to police officers. Just take a look at what is said over at Second City Cop on GPS and Weis.


Joe the Cop over at Chicago Now has a thoughtful exploration of a police officer's stance on cameras. Here is his anecdote on another tracking device in cars:



Back in the mid-90's my department had tracking devices placed in our squad cars, "for officer safety." We were told that the trackers could be used during chases if an officer drove into another jurisdiction where he didn't know street names, or if an officer was injured or unconscious and couldn't call out his location. A high-ranking member of my department (long since retired) told an assembly of officers that the devices would not be used for disciplinary purposes, and were solely for our safety.



After the devices were installed one of our officers got into a chase that ended 4 towns away. Our dispatchers found out that they could not refresh the computer screens fast enough to effectively use the tracking program during a chase. Strike one. Within months, some supervisors began calling in officers and questioning why they were parked so long at a given location, or why they spent so much time parked next to a fellow officer. It was clear the devices were being used to monitor officer movement and productivity. Strike 2. At a subsequent meeting that high-ranking supervisor told that same assembly of officers that he had never said the program would not be used for discipline. He said--and this was demonstrably false--that he had always described the tracking devices as a management tool. Strike 3. There were a whole lot of officers there that would never again believe anything that came out of that supervisor's mouth.



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