Written by Marc Linden
Over the past twenty years, the technology behind police car video surveillance systems has evolved significantly. Simultaneously, acceptance of these systems among citizens and police has continued to grow. Police car video surveillance systems are commonly referred to as in-car video (ICV), and I am often called to appear as an expert witness when such video recordings are introduced as evidence in a trial or hearing. My job is to clarify the contents of the video and check that the recording has not been tampered with in any way.
Modern ICV systems are completely digital and store compressed video with sound on hard-disk or solid-state drives. The police officer or state trooper wears a wireless mic, and a dash-mounted camera captures video. During a traffic stop, the ICV makes a permanent record of everything that transpires between the police and motorist. The watermarked video is stored in a tamper-proof enclosure, and a careful chain of custody is maintained as the video is removed from the car, downloaded, and archived.
Here are the numbers: there are about 18,000 independent municipalities in the U.S., and they own roughly 450,000 patrol cars. Approximately 50% of those cars are currently equipped with ICV. With systems priced between $3,000 and $5,000 per vehicle, this represents a substantial investment. Despite tight local budgets, sales of ICV systems to state and local law enforcement continue to grow at a healthy rate.
Given the growth of the industry, I was quite surprised by a story related to me recently by a colleague. He said that the Massachusetts State Police had recently removed all ICV systems from their patrol cars in an effort to boost conviction rates in cases where traffic stops resulted in arrests. Could it be true that a completely objective record of arrests was of greater use to defense attorneys than prosecutors?
My colleague was right. Currently, not a single Massachusetts State Police patrol car is equipped with in-car video. But there’s more to the story. Their patrol cars have NEVER had ICV!
Digging deeper, I found that even though 72% of all highway patrol and state police patrol cars are ICV equipped, there are 4 or 5 states where none of these vehicles have video. Massachusetts is one of those states. It seems there are a variety of factors that play a part when state or local police make the choice to opt-out of ICV technology. There may be budgetary constraints or officers and their unions may object on the grounds that ICV hampers police, who are constantly on guard against being caught making a mistake or an error in judgment. Then, there are different interpretations of overlapping federal, state, and local laws regarding privacy; there are states where audio and/or video recording requires dual party consent (e.g., Massachusetts), and there are states where single part consent is sufficient (e.g., Maine).
My guess, however, is that the most important factor in determining whether state or local police have ICV is public opinion. For some, the threat of Big Brother watching them 24/7 makes ICV an indefensible intrusion on their civil rights and their privacy. Massachusetts State Police have no in-car video and neither do local police in Boston. But anecdotal evidence suggests that the farther one travels east, away from Boston, the more local police patrol cars are ICV equipped.
Personally, I think ICV helps protect everyone involved, both officers and motorists. And according to The International Association of Chiefs of Police, in situations where an officer’s conduct has been called into question, police car video surveillance systems have helped exonerate those officers in 96.2% of all cases.