A motorcyclist sped down Cutting Boulevard at 50 mph the evening of Oct. 9, heading straight into the path of a sedan turning left from 29th Street. The sedan driver didn’t see the motorcycle coming. With little time to react, the motorcyclist crashed into the car and flew over the handlebars. The man lay about 40 feet away from the crash site.
Within minutes, Richmond Police Officer Phillip Sanchez was the first to arrive on scene. The motorcyclist was unable to move because of major injuries sustained to his lower body. Sanchez switched on his camera and began recording the scene for evidence.
“You could see the motorcyclist still on the ground with … debris all over the place and people in the street trying to treat him,” said Sanchez, describing the footage his belt-mounted camera recorded. “It was interesting to replay it and see how it [the camera] captured the entire event from the beginning. It was useful to go back and look at some of that.”
At the beginning of October, four Richmond Police Officers began testing body cameras while out on patrol for the first time, evaluating which of three models would work best for the department.
There’s a set of glasses with a small camera mounted to the frame; one that mounts to the officer’s uniform shoulder strap, and two large, square devices that clip to the officer’s uniform belt or shirt and have a wide-angle “fisheye” lens.
Sanchez tested the unit with the “fisheye” lens. The device is manufactured by Taser International and costs $299, paid out of the department’s general fund. The device comes with an iPod Touch for reviewing captured video, which also displays a live-view from the camera.
According to the department’s developing policy on body cameras, Sanchez must wear the unit and place the device in standby mode when he leaves on patrol.
The camera films in constant 30-second loops when in standby mode. When the officer arrives to a call, he hits record. The camera begins recording video from the last 30-second loop. Audio is recorded when the device is active.
Sanchez said the department intends to pick one model and issue it to all patrol officers in order to get ahead of a technology curve.
“Everybody on the street has a cellphone or video camera to try to record the police,” he said. The problem, as he sees it, is those recordings “could be taken out of context and could be inflammatory against the police.”
On the other hand, Sanchez said, the body cameras “go with us everywhere” and take the whole incident into perspective. Policy states that officers must record an incident from their arrival until they are allowed to leave or the incident is closed, he said.
Police departments across the country have started using body cameras. Oakland and San Francisco police departments issued cameras to officers earlier this year, and BART Police also adopted them recently.
Some organizations, however, are critical of the cameras. At the October meeting of the Richmond Police Commission, two American Civil Liberties Union members expressed concern about privacy and asked how long video evidence would be stored.
But Sanchez said people should not expect privacy when interacting with law enforcement.
“We can use anything you say as evidence,” he said.
The ACLU officially stated cameras operated by law enforcement could be beneficial when used properly. Body cameras “have the potential to be a win-win, helping protect the public against police misconduct, and at the same time helping protect police against false accusations of abuse,” according to an ACLU statement on its website.
Police provide two safeguards to make this technology beneficial, according to another ACLU statement on its website. First, police should have a policy ensuring that the cameras are not violating privacy, and not a tool of mass surveillance. Second, there should be firm guidelines telling officers when they have to turn the cameras on, and when they must turn them off.
Richmond Police Captain Mark Gagan said the department is still developing its policy for storing video evidence. Currently it will hold the data for one year, but Gagan said the department has the ability to hold footage longer for different crimes, even indefinitely.
According to Gagan, footage that can be used in court will be held “until the appeal process is exhausted” and footage that captures criminal activity will be held “for at least the length of the statute of limitations,” which he said is usually three years.
Footage will be stored on a third-party website, www.evidence.com, which will charge the department $1 per gigabyte of storage, according to Gagan. After each shift, officers download footage to a cloud server.
The unit Sanchez evaluated is a bit bulky. He first clipped it at chest-level, but the camera kept snagging on his seatbelt and he chose to move it to the front of his belt.
“It’s mounted too low” on his belt, he said, which is why the department is also testing the higher vantage eyeglass camera.
But the camera still helps Sanchez “refresh my memory of the incident as it happened for my report.”