There's no question that when an officer is wearing a camera they're more conscious about what they say, they're more conscious of the interaction. But the other thing that's really unique about this, what better way to document evidence? —Salt Lake Police Chief Chris Burbank
SALT LAKE CITY — It's a scenario that plays out with a fair amount of regularity in Salt Lake City.
A motorcycle officer pulls over a vehicle for speeding. The driver contends the officer's radar gun gave faulty readings because of obstructions. Then the driver claims the officer was rude and belligerent while writing the ticket.
But in this case, all the officer had to do was go to the video evidence for his defense. The officer was equipped with a camera attached to his helmet that recorded the entire episode.
"Well, you see very clearly that that car is the only vehicle on the overpass," said Salt Lake Police Chief Chris Burbank. "You now have the radar gun and the digital readout on the radar gun visible in the camera, the car in the background, and you've got a pretty good accounting of what that officer did.
"That entire thing was documented and it becomes a nonissue in the police department very quickly," he said.
Burbank has invited law enforcement agencies from across the county and the Valley Police Alliance to watch a demonstration Wednesday of the new cameras that his department has been experimenting with for the past three to four months.
Like cameras that fit on the dashboards of police patrol cars, the new body cams can be worn by officers whenever they're on duty and can go wherever they go. Burbank believes every agency in the valley should be moving in that direction.
The cameras fit right on the side of a set of Oakley glasses given to each officer, so they record events exactly as the officer sees them.
Burbank is convinced body cameras are the wave of the future. So much so, that his department has discontinued spending money on dashboard cameras in anticipation of final funding approval for body cams.
"I think policing has moved in the direction where everybody is filming everybody," he said.
Burbank points to the Occupy Salt Lake movement where almost everything police officers said and did was recorded by Occupy members. So his department started doing the same thing.
The chief has been an advocate of videotaping all his press conferences and posting them on the Salt Lake City Police Department's website, uncut. That way, the public doesn't just get snippets of what the department had to say, Burbank said.
The body cams would useful in high-profile incidents, such as the recent standoff with a man who had a bomb at a downtown TRAX station. That man was shot and killed by a Salt Lake officer.
The entire incident was recorded by local media. But, Burbank said, if the officer had had a body cam, the video could have been shown to the district attorney's office and any review board, showing them exactly what the officer was seeing.
At issue is public accountability, said Burbank, who is an advocate of transparency within his department.
"What better way to show the public, as well as the district attorney and the police chief for that matter reviewing that incident, that officer's actions — that use of force — than to have the entire thing captured on video," Burbank said. "It now gives you the perspective of the officer, which is crucial, especially in use-of-force situations. You see the proximity of what's going on. You see the interplay that takes place and really what the officer's processing."
While standoffs and SWAT situations would be the most visible use of the cameras, Burbank said, the more common use would be the interaction officers have on a daily basis with the public. It could be used, for example, as evidence in a simple drug bust where the suspect gives the officer consent to search.
"And you'd be surprised how many times a person will say, 'Yes, go ahead and search me for narcotics,' and you find dope in their pocket and you get to court later and the question is, 'Well, who in their right mind would ever tell the police it's OK to search?' Well, they actually did. But now you would have documentation of that taking place," he said.
Or it could be used in domestic violence cases where a victim later changes their story in court and no longer wants to press charges. A recording of the initial incident would show a court the emotion, and possibly even the injuries that the officer saw when he or she was first called to the scene.
The cameras could even be used in a simple case of running a stop sign.
"No longer is it the officer's word versus the other driver whether he stopped," the chief said.
In October, Burbank received the endorsement of the Police Civilian Review Board. Each body cam costs about $1,000.
Burbank conceded that some people, even within his own department, worry the cameras are another step toward Big Brother watching over the public's every movement. And he knows there will be times when his officers are recorded in situations unfavorable to the department.
But overall, he believes, the cameras will actually serve to document the good work that his officers do.
"There's no question that when an officer is wearing a camera they're more conscious about what they say, they're more conscious of the interaction. But the other thing that's really unique about this, what better way to document evidence?" he said. "Here's exactly what (suspect or victim) said, what his emotion was, everything that had to do with it. The accountability for that entire process is validated.
"What I think you will find is more often than not, that the officer will want the unit on, because it will capture so many things and be very valuable to the police officer," Burbank said.
In some cases, officers could also use it to review what a witness or suspect told them.
"You have the ability to capture statements that are given spontaneously," he said. "It has nothing to do with an officer trying to be coercive or anything else. It's just accurately capturing an event as it unfolds."
Burbank said his goal is to improve policing as a whole.
"I am always interested in making determinations about officers' actions, about what we did. I'm trying to get the facts as best I can. And what better way to get to the factual event of what actually occurred than to have an audio and video recording?"
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