Palo Alto police embrace new recording technology

Cruisers now equipped with five cameras, ability to 'record after the fact'

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 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 recorded in two different ways. Any incident that requires the use of police lights and sirens automatically triggers the cameras and transfers the recorded data to a removable flash drive. All the other footage gets automatically picked up 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.

This feature has already come in useful in at least one case, he 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, Perron said. Before the video review, the suspect had claimed he was in a different location.

The way the footage is transferred and stored 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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Like this comment
Posted by Dennis
a resident of Palo Verde
on Mar 20, 2014 at 10:50 am

I am not understanding something. The 40 hour buffer includes video but not audio?? Technically, 40 hours of audio require much less storage than video. So, either there is some non-technical issue at play, I am misreading, or something.

Like this comment
Posted by JustMe
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Mar 20, 2014 at 11:15 am

I had the same thought Dennis. Video data is orders of magnitude larger than audio, why not store audio as well? It would be an incremental increase in data size, I would think.

The next step in video recording systems for cars is for ordinary citizens to have them. In the event of an accident, the logs could be reviewed to find out what happened and who was at fault. If you were following another vehicle that had an incident you would have the option of allowing your video to be used in the investigation.

If course, if you are cheating on your spouse, and your spouse can review the captured data, you might not like this very much. But then, if you have the "Find Friends" function on your iPhone turned on so that your spouse can know where you are, then you already have a small, uhhh, traceability issue.

Back to the cops using cameras, I saw an article recently about the use of wearable cameras that an officer can attach to his uniform, and how the use of these things has shown its value in disproving claims of police abuse, probably saving the departments tons of legal fees. I like those cameras to provide this same type of coverage for the officer when he is not in or near the car.

Like this comment
Posted by JustMe
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Mar 20, 2014 at 11:24 am

Question about those cameras: Are they also night vision or IR sensitive? Or do the police count on always having enough light to record good video?

Like this comment
Posted by Watcher
a resident of another community
on Mar 20, 2014 at 11:53 am

IOs this the kind of system where the data can be easily "Lost" in case there is a question on the behavior of the officer? IMO these should be backed up regularly to secured servers with highly limited access. These are not only tools for the police, but also tools for citizens to use in case of questionable behaviors by police.
Also, Police should never be allowed to interview or question people on the road if they are out of view of these cameras. I support them so we can keep an eye on EVERYONE.

Like this comment
Posted by Lady Liberty
a resident of Greendell/Walnut Grove
on Mar 20, 2014 at 1:11 pm

Big brother chipping away at our freedoms in the
name of our safety. If they had their way, it
would be illegal for us to film them and legal
for them to film us. Remember, we don't get to
review their footage, only the other way around.
Web Link

I want my neighborhood to be as safe as the next
guy. I'm not against the police. There is a
balance between government safety and our freedoms.

- Lady Liberty

Like this comment
Posted by Oh My
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 20, 2014 at 2:36 pm

Now, finally, we will have a method for tracking and recording teenage bicyclists running stop signs and avoiding the need for police to chase down the offenders, tackling them, and threating to use their Taser weapons to assure compliance. Yep, surely no room for abuse by police using this technology.

Like this comment
Posted by Ahem
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 20, 2014 at 4:12 pm

What else can be done on the back-end with all of this video? License plate scanning? Facial recognition? With a simple change to the UV filter a digital camera can be modified to see through clothing (look it up). 1984 is being rolled out incrementally. Do the frogs feel the temperature rising?

Like this comment
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Mar 20, 2014 at 6:21 pm

@Ahem, if the UV filter story was true, we'd all be getting sunburns in the darnedest places.

Like this comment
Posted by Terry
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 20, 2014 at 9:48 pm


Like this comment
Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 20, 2014 at 10:38 pm

I'd rather they spent money on wearable cameras for every officer. Those cameras have been proven to improve police practices.

These vehicle cameras are $10,892 each.

Like this comment
Posted by GOOD!!
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 20, 2014 at 10:59 pm

Great Idea, and hope it works well.

Like this comment
Posted by Doesitmatter
a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 21, 2014 at 3:34 am

How long before they run the images through Facial Recognition and then on to the current area of reading moods/stress-levels and emotional states? That way they can justify shooting/tasing someone before the person-of-interest actually "acts"? You know that is where this is leading...oh, and voice stress analysis for telling if you are telling the truth.

The police state is an amazing evolution of the U.S. NOT THAT THERE IS ANYTHING WRONG WITH BEING A POLICE STATE...ask those in Nazi Germany or the U.S.S.R. It is the price you pay for freedom. :)

Like this comment
Posted by A Cop
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 21, 2014 at 9:40 am

@Dennis and @JustMe, the point of the 40 hour buffer not capturing audio is so that an officer's casual conversation with co-workers during a meal break, a cell phone conversation with his wife and kids to check in before they go to bed, an off-key sing along with a song on the radio, or other non-work related conversations or audio that take place during an officer's personal breaks won't be recorded. That way the officers don't have to worry about their private conversations, when they're on allotted personal breaks at the station, being scrutinized by their supervisors or potentially embarrassing audio like singing with the radio or going to the bathroom being played in front of a jury or the media. Officers already know to keep their personal conversations to a minimum when the audio is recording during the normal video recordings.

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Posted by Dennis
a resident of Palo Verde
on Mar 21, 2014 at 10:52 am

@A Cop, Makes sense. I suspected there was a reason. A possible improvement I could think of is that audio be turned on (including, say, 60 seconds retroactively) on certain key trigger events such as gunshot sounds, vehicle crash, sirens or lights engaged, high speed, etc. One officer privacy preserving way to do this is have a button the officer punches to engage audio recording. The retroactive feature has officer privacy downsides but shortly after a trigger event such as above, I expect casual conversation has ended.

Like this comment
Posted by A Cop
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 21, 2014 at 11:32 am

@Dennis, we use one of this company's systems at the PD I work at and it's set up to work with the following triggers to start recording: pressing the record button on the camera, pressing the record button on the officer's body mic, activating the lightbar, activating the siren, exceeding a pre-set speed (80mph on ours), and tripping the accelerometer (from an impact/crash). All of those will record the preceding 60 seconds of buffered video only, and then full video and audio recording begins from the time of that trigger until it's manually stopped.

Like this comment
Posted by Whiskers
a resident of Los Altos
on Mar 21, 2014 at 2:58 pm

To me, the key sentence was, "The department, Perron said, is now in the final stages of drafting policies for how these cameras should be used".

I feel confidant that somebody in the PD will be following this forum, so it might be the perfect place for you and me to voice our suggestions, in additions to our concerns, on how this new system is used.

For example, I don't see how having something recording the conversations in the police car would damper normal officer conversations.

How about it; let's have some constructive suggestions. We'll all be better off for it.

Like this comment
Posted by Hmmm
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Mar 21, 2014 at 3:33 pm

Hmmm is a registered user.

[Post removed.]

Like this comment
Posted by Dennis
a resident of Palo Verde
on Mar 23, 2014 at 5:07 pm

@A Cop: I think both of us are saying pretty much the same thing about when the recording should/does turn on. We have the same 1 minute prior period of saving previous data. The only difference I see is whether audio is recorded in the 1 minute prior to triggering.

I am sure both of us can see where recording prior audio is beneficial or a liability. It is easy for me to see the benefits because I do not have to suffer the liabilities. The only ones who see the liabilities are the cops in the car.

OK. I can live with removing the liabilities in order to make this system's use more acceptable to the cops in the car.

Thanks for the explanations.

Like this comment
Posted by Edgarpoet
a resident of Mountain View
on Mar 23, 2014 at 8:21 pm

The trend to eliminate ALL human rights marches on.
I can speak from experience that the police are only agents
of a very corrupt and out of control system, this same
government system we protested in the 1960's. Many of you
people apparently were not around then? If you really believe that
this type of technology will only be used for "good"
you are naive and have totally been brainwashed! Why not just lock up
everybody who does not look or behave just like you? The State of California is sure trying that. This would be a clean totalitarian society acceptable to bigots and capitalist oppressors then! Not happy yet?

Like this comment
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Mar 24, 2014 at 7:55 pm

@Edgarpoet: Surprise! Those who grew up in the sixties are in charge now!

Like this comment
Posted by Ahem
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 25, 2014 at 10:10 pm


Most digital cameras can be modified to see through clothing by removing the UV filter. This works especially well with synthetic clothing that is a little moist from perspiration.

Your scientific reasoning is flawed. Look it up? Naw... it's a lot easier to just make something up.

Like this comment
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Mar 26, 2014 at 12:39 am

Digital cameras come with IR filters, not UV filters. UV filters are purchased separately to reduce haze in daylight photos. The IR blocker is built-in because CMOS or CCD sensors see almost twice the spectrum as human eyes, and the IR part won't focus well and doesn't translate to a color we are used to. Infrared is usually rendered in green on cameras where the IR filter can be rotated out for greater sensitivity in low-light situations. There may be some thin clothing materials that are somewhat transparent to infrared light, but nothing like soft x-ray backscatter viewers at airports. Can't wait to see those on police cars, but I suppose Google will test them on streetview first.

Like this comment
Posted by Sparty
a resident of another community
on Mar 26, 2014 at 5:22 pm

Most digital cameras do not have an IR or UV filter. They have hot mirror filters and low pass filters... if you want to "see through clothing" you ADD an IR filter, not remove it. (after you take out the hot mirror filter)

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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