CENTERVILLE -- When police Officer Christopher Gray steps out of his patrol car on a call, his CopTrax Smart Glasses record everything he sees and hears.
Gray, a field training officer, said wearing the glasses takes a little getting used to as the right eye adjusts to a prism display in the lens.
“It really does help because you, or the judge, or the command staff, or anyone who gets to view our video will see what we saw, whether it was a traffic stop or domestic violence situation,” Gray said. “That way, if someone tries to file a complaint on one of us, or if we need to document some injuries, or anything like that, it’s right there for you.
“It’s filming everything that we see, so I think it’s a great tool,” he said.
Although the glasses are fully functional computers, Centerville police are using them as body cameras. Lt. Phillip Pritchett, who’s over patrol, said the agency is trying to stay on top of the latest technology.
“With a lot of what we’ve seen recently in the news with cases, for instance, in Ferguson, Missouri, we seem to be leaning a way to the point that the government is going to mandate body-worn cameras by police officers, and we’re staying ahead of that curve,” he said.
Last year, Michael Brown was shot to death by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Since Pritchett was interviewed for this story, a man in North Charleston, South Carolina, was fatally shot in the back by a police officer. That officer has been charged with murder. A grand jury did not bring charges against the officer in Ferguson.
Such shootings have renewed debate about whether officers should wear body cameras. Critics of body cameras, and Centerville’s new glasses, cite concerns over privacy and transparency.
“The great promise of police body cameras is their oversight potential,” according to a March 2015 report from the American Civil Liberties Union. “But equally important are the privacy interests and fair trial rights of individuals who are recorded.”
HOW THEY OPERATE
Centerville police have been using the glasses for about a month. As a pilot program for the glasses, the agency purchased 12 for half price at $750 each.
“This is not made to invade anyone’s privacy,” said Pritchett, holding a pair of the glasses in his hand. “As a reminder, this is no different than a cellphone as far as it captures the same video as a cellphone could capture.
“We’re not trying to spy. There’s a lot smaller, thinner and more hidden cameras available than these. These are simply to protect the public and to protect the officers,” he said.
The glasses are not used for facial recognition, tag scanning or anything of that nature, Pritchett said.
An officer can activate the glasses by voice command or touch the built-in mouse in the right rim of the glasses. The glasses also automatically turn on when an officer activates the light bar inside a police car. A photo can be snapped at a blink of an officer’s eye, Pritchett said.
Typically, officers record 15 to 20 minutes “at most” when capturing traffic stops and other service calls. The glasses’ battery only lasts about 45 minutes, but an external battery may be attached by a cord that extends the battery life about 24 hours, he said.
The videos automatically upload to cloud storage.
“The only thing the officers have access to once the video is being recorded is to view their own videos,” Pritchett said.
Pritchett, Police Chief Sid Andrews and assistant chief W.G. Cooley have oversight of the videos, randomly view them and retain the recordings based on Georgia evidence retention laws.
If the glasses are not connected to an officer’s personal smartphone, all the officer can do with the glasses is record video, Pritchett said. If the glasses are connected to a smartphone, officers can get directions, see text messages, emails, and receive and hear phone calls, he said.
“I hope to see in the future things like having the call notes like a call for service on the display,” Pritchett said. “Centerville currently also utilizes a vigilant tag reader, which scans tags and compares them to Georgia’s hot list to do things as far as find stolen or wanted vehicles, uninsured motorists, expired tags, things of that nature. I hope maybe one day to see that capability be installed within these glasses.”
Pritchett showed a video clip of an officer responding to a 911 call at a Centerville home.
“The important thing of this video would be this is something that the dash cam, the in-car dash cam, would not normally see,” Pritchett said. “This is from the officer’s perspective as he approaches the house.
“Had this been a situation of domestic violence or any other type of situation, whether it be a burglary in progress and somebody started coming out the window, the dash cam would not capture that as would these glasses.”
Officers record most calls for service. But by policy, some situations are not be recorded, such as victims of sexual assault, Pritchett said.
The agency’s written policy on the use of body cameras also states the glasses may be used only in performance of official police duties.
“In a situation in which the officer is called to the residence and believes he’s investigating a crime, which is typically when people would call the police, they have a right to be videoing their encounter,” Pritchett said. “If the officer is there on some type of consensual stop, you do have the right not to be recorded.”
In consensual situations -- those that do not involve a crime, a call to service or investigation -- a member of the public has the right to ask the officer not to record the encounter, and officers are to turn off the glasses, Pritchett said.
“It’s not a problem with the officer just removing them and setting them down, putting them back in the car or whatever that situation may call for,” he said.
Centerville residents David and Geraldine Parker have raised concerns about the glasses related to privacy and U.S. constitutional provisions against unreasonable search and seizure.
“Another concern that I have with them is the fact that there is no telling what they record since they don’t have to tell us they are recording, what data they are keeping on us, and how long that information will be kept,” Geraldine Parker said. “And they will be doing this on everyone they stop or talk to, whether there is a criminal event or not.
“Not only does this intrude into our privacy, but it keeps us oppressed and from actually saying anything,” she said.
Because the glasses are also computers, Parker questioned what safeguard the public has that the glasses are used only as police say.
Chief Andrews responded that the police department’s policy on the use of the body cameras, internal review by administrative staff of the videos, and evidence retention and other applicable laws safeguard the appropriate use of the glasses.
The ACLU recommends strong privacy policies for police departments that use body cameras. Its recommendations include that body cameras should generally be limited to uniformed officers; that, as practical, officers should notify people when they are being recorded; and that data should be retained no longer than necessary.
NOT FOR EVERYONE
Byron police tested the glasses for a day in September 2013 through a research partnership with Georgia Tech and the surveillance technology company CopTrax.
The glasses were used on traffic stops, at the firing range and during an actual arrest. But the agency opted out of buying the glasses.
The downside to the glasses, said Byron police Lt. Bryan Hunter, is the short battery life, the aggravation of adding another gadget and wire on the police uniform to hold an extended battery pack, and the expense of fitting officers who wear prescription glasses. Also, because the glasses use a prism on the right eye, that creates a problem for an officer who is left-eye dominant, he said.
“It’s a great tool,” Hunter said. “But like everything else, there’s always room for improvement somewhere.”
Byron police now have some body cameras that are used mainly as backup for evidence processing, Hunter said. Officers may opt in to wear the cameras. There is no departmental policy, he said.
“Twenty-five years ago, if you had a video camera in your car, you were special,” Hunter said. “And now it’s the norm for most departments. If you don’t have one, something’s wrong. So now it’s going to body cameras. (But) we’re not going to be in a hurry to jump on that bandwagon.”
To contact writer Becky Purser, call 256-9559.