Video emerged as an important technology for law enforcement in the 1980s with the development of the small, affordable, battery-powered camcorder (a single-unit camera and recorder). Among its early uses were in closed-circuit TV (CCTV) surveillance, crime scene documentation, drunk-driver testing, the taping of confessions, officer training, and public information. Technological advances have upgraded these applications and added new ones, such as in-car cameras, wireless street-to-car transmission, facial and behavioral recognition, video line-ups, and virtual reality training.
The expanded use of video technology has been encouraged by a changing political climate. Patterns of police misconduct and inadequate administrative controls created public pressure to video-monitor police practices. Yet with growing security concerns, citizens have also become more willing to turn the camera upon themselves.
The technical complexity of many video applications and their use in criminal proceedings have led to the development of an accredited specialization in forensic video analysis. Analog videotapes have long been accepted in court, but digital recordings may still meet with resistance because of their novelty and vulnerability to alteration.
Cameras in Patrol Cars
Introduced in the mid-1980s, mobile video systems (MVSs) in patrol cars are now the most widely used video technology in policing. Newer, digital MVSs have many advantages over their analog/videotape predecessors. They occupy little space in the patrol car, with a small camera pointing out of the front windshield and a compact computer hard drive secured in the trunk or beneath the seat. The units can record continuously, or can be activated by switching on the emergency/pursuit lights, retaining a few prior recorded minutes. The hard drive collects audio data via a wireless microphone worn by the officer, and at the end of the shift, the drive is removed and uploaded to a central repository. Alternatively, through wireless audio and visual transmission from the police car to a central location, an incident is monitored and recorded as it unfolds. Recordings are easily reviewed and analyzed, because there is no tape to rewind.
Car-mounted video cameras enhance officer safety, enrich written reports, and provide persuasive evidence in the courtroom. Yet the impetus for cameras in police cars also came from public concerns over racial profiling, high-speed pursuits, and other questionable police practices. In 2000, the U.S. Department of Justice offered an In-Car Camera Incentive Program. It funded MVS equipment in state police and highway patrol vehicles, to strengthen federal initiatives against profiling and drunk driving. Now more than 75% of eligible vehicles are camera equipped.
Police agencies find MVS to be of value in evaluating and improving officer performance, resolving citizen complaints, and reducing costly lawsuits. Officers report using their video recordings as a memory aid, as a self-training tool to correct dangerous tactical errors, and as a simple way to clear themselves when accused of wrongdoing.
Surveillance of criminal suspects became more effective with the use of camcorders. Unlike movie film or still photography, they can operate unattended for hours, under low lighting, and easily capture sound. Detectives working undercover use wireless microphones that transmit directly to a recorder. Cameras situated within schools provide streaming real-time images to police agencies as they respond to a shooting or other crisis.
Improved, cheaper technology also has enlarged the appeal of surveillance equipment among homeowners and small businesses. Because private video surveillance cameras are now so common, they frequently provide important leads in criminal investigations. Sometimes these video recordings are featured on the “Wanted” page of police agency websites.
Government-sponsored video surveillance in public spaces, such as train stations and sidewalks, was not embraced as quickly. Advocates stressed its crime-fighting potential, but critics viewed it as a threat to Constitutional liberties. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, however, few protested the proliferation of video surveillance in areas where crowds of people could become targets. England served as a role model, having established a network of CCTV cameras in the 1960s in response to IRA terrorism. When, in 2005, Londoners themselves experienced subway and bus bombings at the hands of Islamist extremists, CCTV yielded vital information in tracking down those responsible.
Large enterprises, such as airline terminals and casinos, are now investing in “second-generation” CCTV. These computer-linked cameras can recognize faces and detect suspicious activity, then immediately alert security personnel. These systems avoid the drawbacks of human TV monitoring, such as image overload, voyeurism, bias, and boredom.
Most evaluations of CCTV conclude that it does reduce crime, though its effectiveness varies with offender perceptions, type of crime, attentiveness of the camera monitors, and other factors. CCTV in public areas may help revitalize neighborhoods by creating an enhanced sense of security. Judicial rulings and scholarly opinion suggest that the courts are unlikely to oppose such systems.
Traffic Enforcement and Analysis
Video cameras trained on major thoroughfares and traffic intersections are deployed in a number of ways. They document traffic offenses, capturing license plates on camera so that summonses can be issued to the owners of offending vehicles. They transmit images of car accidents and other vehicular delays to a base from which emergency and traffic personnel can be dispatched. They help traffic analysts find short- and long-term solutions to road congestion. Finally, they record data on motorist race and offense rate along thoroughfares where police profiling may be at issue.
Crime Scenes and Found Video Evidence
Investigators use video cameras as they walk through a crime scene and reconstruct what occurred. The recordings can capture and replay details that might otherwise be overlooked or forgotten. Presented in a courtroom, video recordings are an inclusive and compelling way to document the crime scene.
Investigators sometimes discover cameras, tapes, disks, or hard drives that contain incriminating video, such as child pornography or targets for a crime or terrorist attack. Sexual offenders have been known to record their own “trophy” videos as they commit their crimes. Recovery of such taped or digital evidence often requires expertise in video or computer forensics.
Video recordings of police interrogations at first were restricted to the most serious felonies and to the suspect’s final, post-interrogation statement. Thus the persistent questions over Miranda procedures, coercive tactics, and the accurate recounting of statements were left for heated courtroom debate. Amid new recognition of the problem of false confessions, a growing number of prosecutors, state legislatures, and appellate courts are moving toward a requirement that police make complete recordings of custodial interrogations.
Of the jurisdictions that have been recording full custodial interviews for a number of years, most still limit the protocol to serious cases. Some states have eavesdropping laws that require the suspect’s consent to be recorded. Others require suspect notification but not consent, while still other states allow covert recording. On the whole, video recording does not significantly affect suspects’ willingness to talk, although individual reactions vary.
Experienced police interrogators praise the full-recording protocol for its ability to provide a complete, permanent, and uncontestable account. The recording enables them to interview suspects without the distraction of note-taking. It allows them to reexamine suspects’ words and behavior for further clues. It reduces the number of suppression motions and hostile cross-examinations by the defense counsel. Most importantly, it increases the likelihood of conviction, despite initial fears that the interrogators’ use of deceit, manipulation, and strong language would offend jurors.
Police administrators also find positive outcomes from the full recording of custodial interviews. The recordings can provide video training for investigators. They deter improper interrogation tactics and build public confidence in their agency. They also reduce court-related costs, by discrediting illegitimate claims of police coercion and expediting convictions.
Video Mug Books and Line-Ups
Video mug books and line-ups allow a witness to view video footage, rather than inanimate photos, of possible suspects. The video format can present dynamic cues such as voice, mannerisms, and gait. It can spare a victim the ordeal of being in proximity to the suspect. And, since the video portraits can be viewed with no investigator present, the witness’s selection is essentially “double blind.” Implementation of this promising technology must await further research on the role of dynamic traits in witness identification. It will also require police agencies to establish protocols for when and how the video format can be used.
Training and Public Information
Video recordings have long been an efficient way for police agencies to convey information to their officers and to the public. Police academies and in-service training centers present videos on such diverse topics as courtroom testimony, sexual harassment, and chemical weapons attacks. Actual video footage from car stops, surveillance cameras, and custodial interrogations provide vivid lessons. Interactive, virtual-reality video programs help officers prepare to make split-second decisions in vehicle pursuits and firearm use. For the public, videos on crime prevention, drug awareness, emergency preparedness, and other topics are either distributed or shown on police agency websites.
Police video applications are now firmly tied to advances in computer technology. Videos in cell phones and on personal websites may reflect a society that is less privacy conscious in general. Both of these developments suggest even more extensive use of police video in the future.
See also: Closed-Circuit Television Applications for Policing; Computer Technology; Criminal Investigation; Eyewitness Evidence; Interrogations, Criminal; Liability and High-Speed Chases; Liability and the Police; Liability and Use of Force; PATRIOT Acts I and II; Racial Profiling; Surveillance; Technology and the Police; Traffic Services and Management.
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