Sunday, August 21, 2011

Phoenix police apply for grant to buy on-officer video cameras

While the social and economic aid programs are defunded or shut down one by one, the Phoenix PD drop half a mil on control technology

Phoenix police officials have applied for a $500,000 grant that would allow them to buy on-officer video cameras for as many as 50 officers.

Officials expect to hear by early September whether they will receive the money through a partnership with Arizona State University and the U.S. Department of Justice called the Smart Policing Initiative grant.

Earlier this year, Phoenix officers tested the system, in which small video cameras are attached to an officer's uniform. The pilot program was conducted for free, with 18 officers split between the Cactus Park and South Mountain precincts.

"Talk about increasing transparency," Phoenix police Lt. Mike Kurtenbach said. "You don't get much more transparent than video."

The three-month trial that ended in June resulted in 860 hours of video. From that, footage is being used as court evidence in 62 cases, Kurtenbach said. Those cases are still working their way through the system. Attorneys have told Kurtenbach that having video footage is a powerful piece of evidence, he said.

The camera is worn like a Bluetooth device, around the head and over the ear. The officer controls when it is turned on and off through a remote control on his or her chest. A video monitor is attached to the belt.

"A unique feature is that once activated, an officer can't delete or edit the footage," Kurtenbach said. "So we have it all."

Arizona law requires that only one person be aware that they are being recorded, but officers answered questions when asked if they were recording.

"Some citizens keyed in on it right away and asked if the officer was wearing a camera," Kurtenbach said.

There were instances when the cameras were turned off: for example, during interviews with children or during bathroom breaks.

Phoenix police tested Scottsdale-based Taser International's Axon cameras, but there are other companies who sell similar versions.

The grant doesn't specify what brand of cameras would be purchased, but an Axon camera costs about $1,700, plus an annual $1,200 each to store the footage. The federal Smart Policing grant requires police agencies to enlist a research partner - in Phoenix's case, it's ASU - to collect and analyze the data and measure the effectiveness of their efforts.

The on-officer video-camera pilot program was one of 34 Phoenix-wide recommendations developed by a city task force in January to improve relations between the Police Department and community. Kurtenbach was a member of the task force.

The City Manager's Community Engagement and Outreach Task Force was established in April 2010 after several police incidents angered residents, including a March 2010 incident in which City Councilman Michael Johnson, who is African-American, was wrestled to the ground and handcuffed by a White officer.

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