Palo Alto Weekly

News - March 21, 2014

New camera system gives Palo Alto police better eyes, ears

Cruisers now equipped with five cameras for better surveillance

by Gennady Sheyner

If you see a Palo Alto police cruiser passing by, the odds are that the cruiser can also see you, even if the officers inside are gazing in the opposite direction.

The Palo Alto Police Department has recently installed new video systems on dozens of cruisers, replacing the recording systems that were first installed on police vehicles in 2006. In addition to the usual enhancements one can expect with video upgrades — high-definition video and high-fidelity audio — the new recording systems have an additional feature: the ability to record and review what happened before an incident even occurs.

Unlike the previously used Mobile In-Car Video System, which included two cameras on the cruiser, the new systems include five. This means new cameras on the cruisers' sides and rearview mirrors, according to a report from the police department.

"We've already had a few cases where actions of our officers that would not have been captured on the old system were completely captured on the new one, which allowed us to have a clear view of what went on," said Lt. Zach Perron, the department's public-information manager. "That's exactly what we want to have."

The improvement in audio quality is also significant, he said. Audio recordings in the new systems have far more range and can work "through objects," Perron said.

"If you're around the corner of a building and that's where the arrest occurs, there's still a very good chance that the audio will not only be captured but be clearly discernible," he said.

Another difference is that these cameras are, in a sense, always on.

Footage on the new video systems gets stored in two different ways. All footage is automatically recorded and basically remains dormant on the vehicle's hard drive, subject to later review, according to the website of WatchGuard, a network security company that makes the new systems. The company, which refers to the feature as "record after the fact," allows the department to rewind footage over a 40-hour buffer period.

"We're able to go back and snip out a video segment that has been recorded in the prior 40 hours and create a file based on that," Perron said.

Perron noted, however, that this "buffer" period does not include audio recordings.

Second, any incident that requires the use of police lights and sirens automatically triggers the cameras, including audio recording, and transfers the data to a removable flash drive.

The new system's "always on" feature has already come in useful in at least one case, Perron said. Officers were able to use footage from a passing patrol car to verify that a suspect was near a business where a crime had occurred, he said. Before the video review, the suspect had claimed he was in a different location.

The way the footage is transferred is also completely new. Before, the department had to plug data cables into cruisers to get the data into the department computers. Now, the footage is transferred wirelessly and automatically to a secure server, with officers having no ability to delete or edit it.

The new technology was briefly mentioned at the March 13 meeting of the Human Relations Commission, when Commissioner Claude Ezran recounted a recent tour he took of local police facilities. The new cameras, he said, allow officers to "capture all the audio-video and make sure (they) have good visibility on every single incident."

The City Council approved a $305,000 contract to install the new video equipment on 28 vehicles last November. Of those, 22 were installed about three months ago, Perron said. The other six will be installed in the next few months, when the cruisers currently using the old system are replaced.

At the same time, the department is preparing to equip traffic officers and a few patrol officers with wearable cameras. The department, Perron said, is now in the final stages of drafting policies for how these cameras should be used. Officers will start wearing them in the coming weeks, he said.

"We're looking at this as a test phase," Perron said. "It's new technology to us, and we want to make sure we have a solution that works for us and that is truly the best way to do it. The industry trend is definitely toward body-worn products."

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