George Orwell’s surveillance state just got one step closer to reality (though really, how many times a week could one say that?) Police in London are about to embark on a year-long project by wearing video cameras. Sure, cops have been equipped with cameras before — in my fair city and a few others, police cars have cameras, largely to monitor the police themselves, and other police units have outfitted officers in wearable cameras as well. The London initiative is bigger — 500 cameras spanning 10 of the city’s boroughs.
The Metropolitan police bought 500 of the wearable cameras, as well as management software from Taser International, which also makes…well, I’ll give you three guesses, and the first two don’t count. The cordless cameras have 130-degree wide-angle lenses and can be mounted on shirts, pockets, sunglasses, or belts, depending on what the officers think they’ll be encountering. They have 12-hour batteries, low-light capabilities, and feature a one-push recording system that can link any recorded data to the agency’s own storage system or to Taser International’s hosting site, EVIDENCE.com. Well, there’s a nifty new target for hackers. The website says that the camera “Improves behavior of all parties during police interaction.” Funny how being recorded by cops will do that.
A similar pilot program was rolled out in Rialto, California, a small town whose police force of under 200 cover under 30 square miles. According to Taser International’s case study, the use of the cameras “reduced citizen complaints by 87.5% and reduced use of force by 59%.” While those numbers seem impressive on the surface, I have to wonder whether the reduction of complaints is related to a reduction in crime, or whether citizens are more hesitant to voice concerns.
The London project is the largest urban test program of the cameras. Each of the 10 boroughs will have two teams outfitted with the cameras when they respond to emergency calls. Based on the information gathered during the next year, the London police will decide whether to continue using the cameras, and the manufacturer will gain insight into how to improve their product.
Some police officers are wary of the new technology. Having their interactions with the public recorded puts cops on the hook for any questionable behavior, and some recent examples illustrate the lengths some cops will go to avoid being video taped. The ACLU is also wary, pointing out that the effective use of the cameras depends on the enforcement of policies and procedures, especially when it comes to officers choosing if and when to deactivate their cameras. Their take is pretty simple: “We’re waiting to see how they’re implemented.” So say we all.