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Body cameras for police selected, finally; now questions over their quality


By Ashley Southall

New York Times

NEW YORK >> When the New York Police Department announced recently that it had picked a startup company to supply body cameras for its officers, the choice jolted the fast-growing market for high-tech policing tools.

Bypassing Taser International, the industry leader, the department selected Vievu, LLC, a company based in Seattle, despite questions about its performance in other cities.

A public hearing on a proposed five-year contract with Vievu, worth $6.4 million, is scheduled for Thursday, the latest step in what has been a halting effort to outfit New York City officers with body cameras.

Vievu was awarded the New York contract 15 months after being acquired by the Safariland Group, a company from Jacksonville, Florida, that provides the department’s holsters and is seeking a bigger share of the police-equipment market.

Taser said Wednesday it had sent the police department a protest letter, asserting that the selection of Vievu was “a grave error that will endanger officers and members of the public.”

Public uproar over police killings of black men, some of them captured on cellphone video, has increased pressure on police departments to use body cameras, which can provide a useful, if often incomplete, record of what happens during arrests, violent encounters or police shootings. A growing body of research suggests that such cameras can encourage officers and civilians to be less confrontational and aggressive toward one another.

New York has lagged behind police departments in many other big cities in adopting body cameras. More than three years after a federal judge ordered the department to put into place a robust pilot program, not one of the city’s 35,800 officers is using a body camera. If the proposed contract is approved, the city would purchase 5,000 Vievu LE4 cameras, with the possibility of buying as many as 40,000.

The department has faced questions about its proposed protocols for storing, safeguarding and using the video, which may arise at the hearing Thursday.

Taser says its body cameras are used by more than 3,500 law enforcement agencies, including in 34 major cities across the country, Chicago, Dallas and Los Angeles among them. A spokeswoman for Vievu could not say how many agencies in the United States use its equipment, but the company has recently gained footholds in some sizable cities, with contracts in Miami-Dade County, Florida; Phoenix and Seattle.

Benjamin B. Tucker, the police department’s first deputy commissioner, said officials in New York hope to finalize the contract with Vievu by year’s end and to deploy the first 1,000 cameras next year in 20 precincts.

According to the contract, an LE4 can record up to 12 hours of standard-definition video on a single charge. That, officials said, would allow a camera to capture a police officer’s perspective over a typical shift, which lasts 8 hours and 35 minutes.

The cameras automatically add 30 seconds of buffer video when switched on or off, a feature that Vievu says provides a sense of why an officer is interacting with a civilian. Officers will be able to gain access to videos through either a computer or a custom app on their department smartphones, but will not be able to edit or delete videos, which will be encrypted and logged to prevent tampering and unauthorized access.

One of the biggest challenges for police agencies is where to store the vast quantity of footage generated by the cameras. The city, citing a lack of capacity on its own servers, has opted for an unlimited capacity in Vievu’s cloud-storage platform, which was designed in conjunction with Microsoft to meet stringent federal security requirements. The platform was put into use by the Oakland Police Department in February after a city information technology worker accidentally deleted a quarter of the department’s footage during a software upgrade in 2014.

The New York Police Department, in its request for proposals, required potential vendors to provide a “detailed continuity of operations plan” guaranteeing that no data would be permanently lost, including when a camera has a low battery charge or becomes disconnected from a cable.

Addressing concerns about the reliability of a Vievu system, Jessica Tisch, the police department’s deputy commissioner for information technology, said at a news conference this month that the department had consulted with other law enforcement agencies that do business with the company about their experience.

“We would not move forward if we weren’t comfortable that the Vievu cameras were going to provide good coverage and that we were going to store the video in a responsible way,” she said.

It was not clear if New York police officials had consulted with their counterparts in Cincinnati, who chose Taser over Vievu after testing both systems this year. In a report in March, a police official there described the Vievu cameras’ limited field of view and lower video and audio quality. Vievu videos, he said, had been difficult to upload and the company’s software repeatedly crashed and required restarting. Cincinnati officials later concluded that Taser’s “hardware and software systems were clearly the most advantageous option.”

Officials in New York and elsewhere have said that body cameras can help build public trust in the police. But civil liberties advocates say that the police department’s draft policies for using the cameras may undermine the program’s benefits.

The Leadership Conference for Civil and Human Rights, in conjunction with a consulting firm called Upturn, scored the policy on eight criteria, giving it good marks for provisions limiting officers’ discretion on when to record video, addressing privacy concerns and protecting video from tampering and misuse.

But the group was critical of other provisions, including one that would allow police officers to review video before making a statement to investigators, including after incidents involving deadly force.

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