Police departments across the country are equipping officers with body-worn cameras as a way to cut down on complaints from aggrieved suspects.

Tucson is considering joining them.

Every year for the past decade, the Tucson Police Department has averaged about 1,000 complaints against its officers.

Tucson Police Department Assistant Chief John Leavitt said body-worn cameras could dramatically lower those numbers as they have in cities that already implemented them.

One study involving the Rialto, Calif., Police Department discovered that complaints against police officers dropped 88 percent and use of force by an officer dropped by almost 60 percent after the agency instituted the use of body-worn cameras, according to a New York Times article.

While lowering complaints is one of the reasons TPD is looking at the technology, it’s not the biggest.

Leavitt said body-worn cameras are increasingly becoming a part of everyday police work. And it won’t be long until every department in the country will implement the technology in one form or another.

It’s a change that offers a lot of promise and a lot of problems.

One of the problems is which company and technology will become the standard.

Currently, dozens of companies are vying for dominance in the potentially lucrative market.

“It’s just like the VHS and the Sony Beta,” Leavitt said. “Who comes out on top is a big issue.”

With so many options now, TPD wants to get ahead of the curve so its choices aren’t dictated by who wins or loses in the marketplace.

“We want to have some control over how this technology is applied so it best serves our community,” Leavitt said.

The department hasn’t started accepting bids yet. But he expects to have offers within the next 90 days.

Civil Liberties

Another concern is civil liberties.

Unlike police dashboard cameras, which capture images in public places, the body-worn variety will be brought into private homes and graphic crime scenes.

James Lyall, staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona Tucson office, said the ACLU supports the move, but police departments and elected officials will have to implement safeguards so the voluminous amounts of new video aren’t abused.

“On one hand, you want it maintained long enough for it to be used in an investigation or if there are allegations of wrongdoing,” Lyall said. “But you also don’t want the police keeping broad video-footage of the entire population for limitless periods of time.”

Lyall said as long as privacy concerns are factored into any department’s decisions, the move should produce more positives than negatives.

Leavitt said the department is well aware of the potential hazards this footage presents.

“There certainly is a prurient interest in America in the private lives of our bothers and sisters,” Leavitt said.

“We have been pretty good guardians of that information in the past. We anticipate in this process real challenges to that. But we have no interest in allowing voyeurs access to the private lives of the people we serve.”

Leavitt said the department has a preliminary plan in place to determine what gets released and what gets held when the media or private citizens make public-record requests.

“If you have a right to be there as a reporter or as a citizen, then we will study the video and redact it appropriately,” Leavitt said. “But if we’re in someone’s house at 3 a.m. investigating a crime, we’re very likely to not release that video to press requests because the reporter wouldn’t have a right to be inside” that house.

Privacy paramount

Leavitt said existing court decisions support the TPD’s position.

“We consider it to be settled law in that area, and we think that privacy in people’s home is paramount,” Leavitt said. “We anticipate we will go down a path that vigorously protects the privacy of victims ... and witnesses.”

He concedes countless wrinkles will need to be ironed out with both the technology and the legalities, which is why TPD is closely monitoring the successes and failures in other police departments.

Right now, the department is estimating it will cost about $300,000. Most of the costs are associated with storing data and operating the back-end system.

But Leavitt said that is only a working number and will probably change once the bids start rolling in and more research is completed.

Critics contend the cash-strapped department should spend the money to replace deteriorating equipment.

“We have no idea yet how much other infrastructure will be needed to support the cameras. If it’s going to be used as evidence, we will have to maintain a secure chain of custody, maintain it on secure servers, have capacity out the ying-yang to support storing all of it, and qualified personnel to monitor it,” said Councilman Steve Kozachik.

“That’s a lot of unknowns, and a lot of money to spend when we have immediate needs on the street that should be funded. ... And if we have extra cash for video, spend it proactively on new safety vests for our cops, or funding ammunition for them to use at the practice range.”

Leavitt said that while the new system is expensive, it’s not significantly more than the dashboard camera system in use the past two decades. He said body-worn cameras offer potential savings such as officers filing video directly instead of writing up reports for nonservice calls, among other activities that could offset some of the costs.

Contact reporter Darren DaRonco at 573-4243 or ddaronco@azstarnet.com. Follow on Twitter @DarrenDaRonco.