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Thursday, September 18, 2008

Who Will Watch The Watchmen Now

When three ex-Seattle police officers formed VIEVU with the idea to develop a small wearable camera for police officers that would help reduce the number of false misconduct accusations against police officers and provide them with a useful tool to gather evidence while on the job, it's unlikely that they imagined that the most resistance to their idea would come from their peers and old coworkers at the Seattle Police Department.

The VIEVU is a three ounce rectangular wearable wireless audio/video recording device that is capable of storing up to 4 hours of video that supposedly cannot be manipulated or erased. Approximately the shape of an older style pager, the device can be clipped on a uniform or belt and allows the officer to record potentially volatile interactions or situations from his or her own perspective. The device cannot be tampered with and the recordings cannot be modified even after they are downloaded from the devices onto a central computer system.

In this regard, the VIEVU is unlike dashboard mounted cameras used in police cruisers that only point forward and have been known to miss recording disputed police interactions, such as the case of Maikoiyo Alley-Barnes who could be heard pleading for officers to stop beating him on a dash-mounted police camera that was not positioned to record the actual beating. So this could be a valuable tool that protects officers who have been wrongfully accused of misconduct and to hold officers accountable who do commit acts of misconduct.

However, the Seattle Police Officer's Guild has forced the Seattle Police Department to suspend it's testing of the VIEVU after it was used to help monitor an August 29th Critical Mass bicycle ride through the city of Seattle as a test of the portable recording system. When asked about the guild's problems with the device, Sgt. Rich O'Neill, president of the guild, cited privacy concerns along with the need for officers to undergo training and preparation for potential litigation as reasons for the guild's resistance to the camera.

O'Neill also argued, in an interview with the Seattle Times, that the devices may make it harder for officers to gather evidence in cases instead of making it easier. "If the officers have the cameras going all the time there could be a chilling effect on citizens and juvenile talking to the police. If they think the cops are videotaping all of their conversations they might not want to have their names or faces used." O'Neill was quoted as saying.

Surprisingly, the guild has an ally in it's argument against the cameras in the form of the ACLU of Washington State, headquartered in Seattle, Washington. In an interview taken before the guild stopped the department's testing of the device, Christina Drummond, the Technology and Liberty Project Director for the ACLU of Washington, cited similar concerns over the use of the device.

Are these concerns founded in an age where the common citizenry is told that there should be no expectation of privacy in public? Where workers in the private sector are allowed to be recorded by their employers while on the job and where the police themselves monitor citizens with CCTV cameras positioned on street corners and in public parks?

Why is it that a police officer should have a special expectation of privacy where the common citizen does not? Why is their supposed fear of accountability still taken seriously when they already have job security protections that most of us could only dream of, when it's already nearly impossible to fire a police officer for misconduct?

Now, it's certainly true that the implementation of such devices should be paired with a very well-thought out policy that dictates when and how the devices should be used, that prevent reviewing of recorded materials except for gathering known evidence or incidents that have received complaints. It does seem clear that there was little thought put into the testing performed at the SPD and there have been no mention of protocols that were given to officers that would govern how these devices were used or how information gathered by them would be protected from surreptitious review.

But such guidelines and restrictions already exist for the use of recordings made by the police from public CCTV systems and dashboard mounted cameras that already exist in their vehicles. Why have those technologies been praised by officers while they still resist putting cameras in precincts and the use of wearable recording devices?

In our present-day surveillance society, it's interesting that perhaps the very last bastion of privacy in America might very well reserved for the very same police officers that have been given the power and privileged of monitoring and recording the rest of us...

In the end it seems as though everyone will be left wondering if this technology will finally help us watch the watchers, or if the watchers will be only gaining yet another tool with which to watch us.

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