Alabama explores shirt-cameras for police

Published 4 October 2011

With the increasing availability of cheap wearable cameras, more and more police officers could be recording their every move

With the increasing availability of cheap wearable cameras, more and more police officers could be recording their every move.

The tiny recording devices are small and light enough to clip on to a shirt pocket, tie, or button flap and can cost as little as $100.

In Alabama, the Fairhope police department recently issued twenty of the shirt-pocket cameras to its officers, while a few officers in Mobile are testing the cameras to determine if they will be issued to all personnel.

“I think it’ll catch on,” said Sergeant Jason Woodruff of the Gulf Shores police department which has used the cameras for more than a year. “Car cameras were new ten to twenty years ago, and I think this is kind of the evolution of that.”

Echoing Woodruff’s thoughts, Daphne Levenson, the director of the Alabama Association of Chiefs of Police, said more departments across Alabama are beginning to accept the technology as it becomes more affordable.

Levenson said some Alabama police departments have refrained from installing dashboard cameras because officers feared the video footage would get them in trouble, but roughly 80 percent of the time an officer’s behavior is questioned and the incident is caught on tape, “it exonerates the officer from wrongdoing. Officers have found it to be their friend. If nobody is doing anything wrong, nobody should be worried.”

In addition, Levenson said pocket cameras have other benefits. For instance, “If an officer is shot, he may not be able to testify who did it,” Levenson said. “But the evidence is there.”

John Beck, a criminal defense attorney in Baldwin County, said video evidence helps him decide how to proceed with a client.

“In every case where there is a possibility that a dash cam or any other camera can shed light on the facts, I’m asking for it,” Beck said. “This is all a search for the truth. And I don’t think either law enforcement or defense attorneys should be afraid to seek preservation of the truth, and having a video and audio record is absolutely the best method to preserve the truth.”

Some attorneys and civil rights advocates remain hesitant about the new technology.

Ken Nixon, a lawyer in Mobile, argued that the small size of the clip-on camera means there is potential for abuse as well as illegal recordings.

Under Alabama law, knowledge that a conversation is being recorded must be known by at least one interlocutor, unless a warrant has been issued.

Nixon worries the shirt-pocket cameras are so small they could be left inside a patrol car while an officer stepped outside, and if two suspects inside the car started talking, without knowing the camera was on, any recording of the conversation would be illegal.

“They’re good when they’re used properly,” Nixon said. “But I think they’re invasive, if not illegal, when used improperly.”