Police backup: Cameras, microphones - Tucson Local Media: Pima Pinal

Police backup: Cameras, microphones

Town outfits patrol vehicles with cameras, mobile computers

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Posted: Tuesday, October 28, 2008 11:00 pm

It’s that second set of eyes and ears that will do you in.

Picture it: Someone runs a red light in Marana, right in front of a police officer.

The officer flips on his cruiser’s flashing lights, triggering a camera to record the traffic stop. Only the camera also happens to record the previous 45 seconds of the incident, preserving for posterity the running of that red light. The digital recording is locked away on the hard drive of the officer’s laptop computer.

And, when the officer approaches the violator, a microphone records the ensuing conversation.

The police have that red-light runner dead to rights.

At least that’s the idea in Marana, where the police department has outfitted 50 patrol vehicles with digital Motorola cameras that sync with on-board laptops to preserve records of every traffic stop and incident involving the town’s officers.

The $350,000 investment in the new technology, according to 23-year officer Kevin Madden, should “protect (officers) and individuals.”

Madden last week showcased the cruiser camera’s capabilities, namely its abilities to activate automatically and record events immediately preceding its activation. The device also automatically zeros in on the license plates of any vehicle stopped by a Marana officer.

The in-cruiser laptops not only store the digital videos, which are later catalogued and saved on a secure server at the department’s headquarters, but the computers also give officers in the field the ability to network with other departments in the region. At every stop, a Marana officer can use the computer to search for outstanding warrants and other information about a suspect.

Until recently, the town’s officers had to radio dispatch for such information. Using their computers to perform the searches themselves, Madden said, would free up dispatchers’ time and radio bandwidth.

“Knowledge is typically power,” the officer said. “The more we can do inside the vehicles, the more time we can spend on the street.”

Marana officers last week had parked in front of town hall a SUV and sedan, each outfitted with the Motorola setup. A video camera mounted inside the front windshield is attached to a computer mounted on the center console. A number of things can trigger the camera to begin recording — sudden acceleration, flipping on the overhead flashing lights, a door opening, a radar array detecting a speeder, or the officer himself.

The idea of recording every stop and incident has a number of benefits, police officials say.

For one, the indelible record of the traffic stop can offer proof positive of an offense in court.

Already town police re-produce about 15 to 20 incident recordings a week for prosecutors, according to department Technology Supervisor Rick Brown.

Once a recording is made, it cannot be altered, Brown explained. The recording remains forever locked away on the department’s server.

“It’s really secure,” he said.

Not only can the recording be used in court, but it also can be used during training — much like a coach might break down game tape. Each setup — the camera and the laptop — costs about $13,000, Madden said.

In the coming year, Marana plans to outfit an additional seven vehicles with the high-tech array of crime-fighting tools, he added.

Other area departments for years have made use of either on-board computers or in-cruiser cameras.

In Oro Valley, officers have carried laptops into the field with them since at least 2002, according to spokeswoman Liz Wright. The devices have the ability to link with regional databases on criminal information, she said.

But currently, only the Oro Valley department’s DUI unit — four vehicles — is outfitted with digital cameras to record traffic stops, Wright said.

In Marana, prospective crooks and traffic violators would do well to look out for that second, reliable set of eyes and ears — the camera and the microphone.

“The town’s been really good about giving us the tools in our toolbox,” Officer Madden said.

It’s those new tools that have the ability to lengthen the already-long arm of the law.

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