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December 09, 2005

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, December 09, 2005

The jury in the patrol car The jury in the patrol car (December 09, 2005)

Video cameras installed in police cars this week; police chief also wants cameras in motorcycles

by Bill D'Agostino

The gray sports car sped through a red light on Embarcadero Road, and Palo Alto Police Agent Zach Perron switched on his patrol vehicle's flashing emergency lights and pulled the car over.

After checking the driver's license and registration, Perron let the San Francisco man -- who said he had recently been laid off -- go with only a stern warning.

"I just made his day," the officer remarked when he returned to the vehicle.

A few seconds later, the scene repeated itself exactly, this time on a small swiveling screen inside the patrol car, with audio coming from a speaker on the roof. The interaction had been captured on digital video.

Video cameras in eight Palo Alto police vehicles began recording many officers' interactions with the public this week. Officers driving the cars will be wearing wireless microphones and a battery on their uniforms.

By the end of the year, the cameras will be in all the patrol cars. The police department hopes they will increase the public's confidence in its officers.

"We want to make sure we are transparent," Perron said, who also argued the cameras would vindicate officers against false complaints.

The black cameras, which are shaped like bricks, though slightly smaller, peek through the front windshield, can be swiveled 360 degrees and have powerful zooms. Each is connected to a console on the top of the patrol car's inside hood.

Units for all 26 of Palo Alto's police cars cost the city $200,000. On Monday night, Police Chief Lynne Johnson will ask the City Council to authorize her to seek $35,000 from state grants to purchase cameras for the department's motorcycles.

The cameras automatically start recording as the car's emergency lights are turned on. Officers, by department policy, are also required to turn the cameras on whenever they engage in an enforcement contact with the public -- that is, when they question someone, issue a ticket or make an arrest.

"There's no misunderstanding -- if they do not use it and we find out about it, there will be consequences," Johnson said.

For some police critics, that's not enough. Adam Atito, a member of the city's Human Relations Commission, said he wanted the cameras to be recording 24/7 "so the community will know what's going on all the time."

The police chief, though, said that would not be tenable, especially since the cameras would frequently record nothing of interest.

"It would definitely increase the cost," Johnson said. "It just doesn't make sense."

The department spent the last few weeks test-driving the technology, from Kustom Signals Inc., finding and fixing bugs. During this reporter's ride-along with Perron on Wednesday, there was one significant glitch -- the unit lost audio for about five to 10 seconds. The driver was also occasionally hard to hear.

(Perron, who's been training Palo Alto officers to use the equipment, said they might have to tell some suspects to speak up.)

Otherwise, the technology worked -- the image was sharp and the audio was mostly clear. When Perron turned on the car's flashing emergency lights, the device automatically saved the previous 30 seconds of digital video, then continued recording. (Technically, the cameras are recording all the time but only begin writing permanently to the hard drive 30 seconds before the emergency lights are turned on, an officer turns the cameras on or the car gets into a crash.)

The 40-gigabyte hard drive storing the sound and images is kept in the car's trunk. It is indestructible, Perron said, emphasizing the point by suddenly dropping one onto the concrete floor of the police department's garage. Each drive holds 16 hours of video, and the information gets imported into a large server at the end of each officer's 11-hour shift.

The cameras are simple to use, Perron said. "If anybody can turn on their VCR -- not program, just turn it on -- they can use this."

But, Perron added, they have the possibility of changing how officers do business. For instance, he said if he were to find heroin in a suspect's car during a traffic stop, he'd hold it up to the camera, in essence showing it to a future jury. The agent also said the cameras provide instant feedback. An officer can watch a video from when a suspect starting running away, and notice clues he missed for next time.

"This (the camera) is going to be as indispensable a tool as this was 75 years ago," Perron said, tapping on the car radio.

The cameras, Perron also predicted, would have helped the city get swifter resolution to a controversial incident in 2003 when two officers beat a black driver. The two officers, Michael Kan and Craig Lee, went to trial earlier this year; a hung jury was unable to reach a unanimous verdict about whether the beating was legally justified. The officers are now back to work.

That incident motivated the city to purchase the new equipment. The police chief said she had long been a fan, saying other agencies find they reduce lawsuits and cut down on overtime costs.

"I just think that they can be very beneficial in many regards," Johnson said.

Staff Writer Bill D'Agostino can be e-mailed at

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