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Pilot program would place cameras on officers

"I think cameras on officers would be a great addition to public safety."

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Two years after agreeing to install cameras in the cars of police officers, the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police may be wiring the officers themselves.

According to researchers at the University of Pittsburgh, the Bureau signed an agreement last month to field-test a miniature wearable computer they call the eButton — a device that can continuously record not just video and audio, but also the location, physical condition and body movements of police officers. 

If all goes well, it may be the precursor to a device that can do more than just track data for later review. One of the end goals is an electronic, "intelligent" police badge, says Mingui Sun, lead investigator for the project and a Pitt professor of neurosurgery and electrical and computer engineering.

"The badge is about the same size and same weight as our device," he says. 

Body-worn cameras are cutting-edge technology for law-enforcement agencies. Only about 6 to 8 percent of uniformed police officers nationwide are using such devices, according to Steve Lovell, managing director for VieVu, a product on the market that is similar to the eButton.

The eButton, according to its designers, can snap images at a rate of one per second. They are stored on a memory card much like those taken with digital cameras. The device also has a GPS chip. Depending on which sensors are used, it can weigh as little as 14 grams — one-tenth the weight of an iPhone. 

"It combines so many sensors into one small footprint," says Greg Coticchia, executive-in-residence for software at the University of Pittsburgh.

 "This has a huge brain," Sun says. "This is very powerful." 

Coticchia says the cameras would be relatively inexpensive, estimating the retail value at about $100 each. 

About five to six of the devices will be tested by the Bureau at no cost to the city, Coticchia says.

It's not yet clear what the parameters of the test will be (including which sensors, if any, will be turned off during the field test to protect the privacy of those being recorded). It's also not clear how the data collected will be used or which policies will govern its use.

Diane Richard, the spokeswoman for the Bureau, did not return calls by press time.

Joanna Doven, spokeswoman for Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, says she could not immediately comment on questions related to the agreement, but says the mayor is generally supportive of efforts to use technology to improve officers' effectiveness. 

Regarding questions about privacy policies, she referred to the placement of security cameras in some neighborhoods and the privacy policy surrounding them. 

"We believe we struck a fine balance between protecting our streets with all available tools, while ensuring the privacy of our citizens," Doven says. 

It's also unclear how the devices might be received by the officers themselves.

Mike LaPorte, president of the Pittsburgh Fraternal Order of Police, did not return calls seeking comment. However, David Laux, head of the executive board of the Allegheny County Chiefs of Police Association, says in-car cameras, which are now standard technology in departments in Western Pennsylvania, have been a "win-win-win" for everyone. 

"I think they would be happy to wear something like that," he says. "If they're ever called on to the carpet, you would it have it right there. You could prove the individual right or wrong." 

Pittsburgh defense attorney Jim Ecker said he doesn't see a downside to the idea of body-worn cameras — so long as the recordings couldn't be controlled or edited by the officers themselves. 

"Can they turn it on and off at their convenience?" he asks. "If they can, then it's not going to help." Otherwise, he adds, "I think it would help a great deal with community relationships. It would show both sides."

Pittsburgh City Councilor Ricky Burgess, who introduced the legislation for in-car cameras following the controversial arrest and beating of 18-year-old Homewood resident Jordan Miles in 2010, says he is supportive of the move. 

"I think cameras on officers would be a great addition to public safety," Burgess says, "and would give an increased level of confidence in the community."

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