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Denver Police to start testing body-worn cameras while on patrol

Pretty soon, every shift for Denver Police officers could be like a COPS episode. In two weeks, 23 officers will begin a sixty-day period during which they will be wearing portable cameras that can capture their interaction with the public -- or not. Officers will be able to turn the cameras on or off at their discretion. After the pilot program, the higher-ups will decide if the police department will use the cameras full-time, and to what extent.

The cameras, which have been used in cities such as Albuquerque and Miami, would provide increased transparency for a department that has had many recent cases of alleged excessive force. But that's only if the department deems the cameras worthwhile after the test period.

"The officers are going to be well versed in this over a sixty-day period of time and at that time will provide our findings based on a lot of selective criteria and methodology to our senior staff for further consideration of whether to go with one of these pieces or not to go with any of it," says Lieutenant Ernie Martinez. "At the same time, keep in mind it is a pilot project just to test and evaluate a new form of technology that we may or may not adopt in the near future."

Three of the four models officers will be using are a little larger than a cell phone and clip onto the front of a patrolman's uniform. One model clips on to a belt and connects to a headset that contains the camera. Each camera also records audio. These devices have been provided at no cost to the department by suppliers for the pilot period. Should the department decide to use them, Martinez says the cameras could cost anywhere between $100,000 and $500,000 a year, depending on how many cameras they chose to use.

Coming to an officer near you.
Coming to an officer near you.

"Video speaks a thousand different words and this gives us so much opportunity not only from a documentary standpoint, but as far as the courtroom," says Martinez. "It provides us evidence that otherwise probably wouldn't have been obtained.

"It's a piece that wasn't there before," he continues. "It can provide very valuable information for the investigation."

Officers will upload their videos after each day and Martinez says the department will keep them for "a determined amount of time." Policies for these videos will closely follow that of the HALO cameras around town. Once the videos are uploaded, they will be available through the Freedom of Information Act, just like any other record the department keeps.

The increased transparency and documentation the cameras could go out the window if officers simply choose not to use the cameras. But this was not the chief concern when the department decided to give officers the on/off switch.

"We have a draft policy in place for this specific pilot program that it is at the officer's discretion to utilize these cameras and have it on or off," says Martinez. "We want to leave it that way for a lot of different reasons -- mainly officer safety reasons. Simply because when you're kicking off a brand new piece of equipment or any program, we don't want our officers having to think when they are going in to some kind of critical incident or investigation that they have to automatically slow down and think, 'Okay, do I have to turn this on or turn it off?' Those very important seconds can actually be a detriment to the officer's safety and the safety of the citizens they are going to protect."  

Lieutenant Ernie Martinez talks about the camera pilot program.
Lieutenant Ernie Martinez talks about the camera pilot program.

While supportive of the department using cameras, ACLU of Colorado Public Policy Director Jessie Ulibarri questions giving the officers the option of actually recording and the justification for that decision.

"It just seems disingenuous," he says. "It's 2011. I think officers can figure out how to turn on a camera. If they're wearing it in the course of duty, they could keep it on and we could have a better view of what's going on with our law enforcement officers as they interact with the public. But selectively turning it on and off to create a narrative that might not be reflective of the totality of the circumstance, I think, is problematic at least."

Lieutenant Mathew Murray believes the department should be given the benefit of the doubt based on past transparency with systems such as HALO.

"Some of the video that you all have seen that has caused a lot of controversy came from our department," he says. "We are the people that put it out for you. So transparency is clearly a part of what we're trying to do. There is no cover up. Officers don't go out on shifts and say, 'Oh my gosh, I think I'm going to go beat somebody up,' so they turn off their camera."

The cameras are still an experiment and control of the cameras could be taken from the officers at the end of the sixty-day trial.

"It's going to be up to our senior ranks at that time to say, 'What is your finding?'" says Martinez. "'What have you determined as far as a possibility for a definite, on-all-the-time type of scenario?' But again, I go back to that discretion, where the officer has that discretion and that time to get used to wearing equipment like this, because it does take time and we do not want any of our officers second-guessing on process and throwing officer safety out the window."

The DPD already has a prime example of how the cameras will work. Albuquerque Police responding to a domestic violence complaint tasered and then shot the suspect after he wielded a large knife like a dagger. The entire incident was caught on a camera similar to those Denver officers will be wearing and the video, obtained by KOB Eyewitness News 4, is on view below.

Martinez says other cities using these cameras are taking varying approaches regarding whether or not to leave the cameras on during the entire shift. So is the disclosure the police department is affording with the cameras really significant if it's not full?

"As officers are required to wear the body-worn cameras during their day-to-day interaction, I think you might have a different sense of what they are doing right and what they are doing wrong," says Ulibarri. "And we could then develop policies based on really identifying the practices that are going on that might be problematic. And then we can also uplift the things that are happening well. But you can't do that unless you're being consistent with the collection of data."

If adopted, Martinez says a good number, but not all, patrol officers would wear the cameras. Ulibarri would like to see the cameras on as many officers as possible and says the department could apply for federal grants so as not burden the public with the expense. As a city that paid over $10 million since 2002 for police misconduct lawsuits and complaints, Denver surely would like to see interactions between police and civilians change for the better.

"If you have a camera on, you're definitely going to be more cognizant of what and how you say things," says Murray. "So I think it's good. It's accountability on all sides. But I think it will also affect the way people talk to us."

View the Albuquerque incident below.

More from our News archive: "Denver Police Twitter survey results on photo radar stories: 'Who cares?' finishes strong."


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