News: Installing all cars

After more than one year of testing, video cameras are coming to Cincinnati police Cruisers

Jun 22, 2000 at 2:06 pm
Jymi Bolden

Cincinnati police vehicles are being equipped with cameras.

After several months of testing, the Cincinnati Police Division is ready to begin the two-year process of putting video cameras in all police cruisers.

In January 1999 the division installed nine video cameras and recorders in five cars per district, for a total of 45 (see "More Cameras Will Be Watching Both Citizens and the Police," issue of December 2-8, 1998). Early results were mixed. Problems with the pager-sized microphone units, among other issues, led the city to look harder before it made the leap into buying a full complement of the $3,995 devices from Mobile Vision Inc. of Boonton, N.J. (Each unit includes a camera installed under the rear-view mirror, a standard-format VCR in the trunk, and a microphone attached to a wireless, pager-sized base, worn by the officer.)

The police division considered other in-car camera systems by talking to other departments, but decided in the end to stick with Mobile Vision, in part because the company offered to train city personnel to handle basic troubleshooting and repairs.

Now, all of the 217 division's marked police vehicles are expected to be outfitted by 2002, with about 50 more cameras coming this summer, and another batch of 50 in each of the next two years.

"It has to be done slowly," said Cincinnati Police Lt. Colonel Richard Janke, largely because of funding — the units are being purchased through a federal police block grant — and because the equipment is steadily improving.

"I'm confident that we'll continue to review the performance of the cameras," said Cincinnati Safety Director Kent Ryan. "This is evolving technology."

The division never field tested the other two brands of cameras, but decided not to pursue them further after talking to other departments, Janke said. However, the division would consider buying another brand of camera if it outperforms Mobile Vision's.

The in-car devices only record when officers turn on their lights. The videotapes are kept for one month and used by some officers to sharpen their policing techniques, and as potential evidence in court. But so far it's been hard to gauge their impact on city prosecutions, according to Chief Assistant Prosecutor Charles Rubenstein.

"It may be real effective, but we're not seeing a lot of it playing out in trial," said Rubenstein, adding that he has only used the tapes in court a few times. That may be because defendants know their behavior is on tape, and therefore don't contest certain cases, such as driving under the influence. Or they might not be much of a factor at all, Rubenstein said. In any case, he believes the cameras aren't the best evidence gatherers because the camera lenses are often 25 feet from the suspect.

But when the cameras fail, they have a direct effect on the availability of police vehicles. To repair the devices, the division has had to send the whole car to an outside contractor, Camp Safety, of Deer Park. Repairs sometimes took three, four, or even five days, and as many as half of the 45 trial systems have been broken at the same time, according to a November report by Ryan.

About two months ago the president of Mobile Vision met with police and city officials to listen to their concerns. Mobile Vision agreed to provide one-day, basic training of city staff on how to troubleshoot and conduct basic equipment repairs, said Mike Oxley, Mobile Vision's sales manager.

"The systems are relatively simple as far as troubleshooting," said Oxley, adding that the company didn't plan any major upgrades or major changes to the equipment in next year or so.

Now Janke hopes to return cruisers to the streets in a day or two, or maybe within 30 minutes after simple repairs.

But how effective will the cameras be, and who will benefit? Will the cameras really help police/community relations?

Councilwoman Alicia Reece asked, "Will it be the final answer to all the problems? I don't think so."

Janke asked rhetorically, "Fundamentally, capturing information is positive, right? It's enhanced information collection." ©