Video camera joins crime-fighting arsenal Havre de Grace police use unit for traffic cases

January 10, 1993|By Dianne Bates | Dianne Bates,Contributing Writer

Havre de Grace police officer Neil Crouch has a new partner that weighs in at less than 10 pounds, hangs above the --board and captures evidence on film.

The latest addition to the 23-member city police force -- a video camera -- goes everywhere Officer Crouch goes in his patrol car and will be used primarily in traffic cases, especially those involving suspected drunken driving.

The department added the camera three weeks ago as part of an experiment, following other law enforcement agencies in Maryland and elsewhere.

The Havre de Grace Rotary Club donated the camera and accompanying recording equipment. J. Earl Walker, former police chief, had suggested the camera. Rotary President Diane K. Ford said the $4,545 expenditure received unanimous approval.

l,.5l "We feel it's an improvement, an advancement for our own police," Ms. Ford said, "especially when you look at what's happening up and down the Interstate 95 corridor."

She said Havre de Grace, Aberdeen and Edgewood have been stereotyped the "low end of the county" because of their easy access for drug dealers traveling I-95.

"I think it [the video camera] will run the drug dealers right out of town. No one wants their mug on video," Ms. Ford said.

But police say they have no plans to use the camera in drug cases.

James E. Newby, administrative assistant to the Havre de Grace police chief, said the camera would be used to record traffic violations, particularly drunken driving.

The camera will be turned on, for example, when an officer spots a car weaving in traffic, typically the first sign that a driver has been drinking. During the subsequent traffic stop, the officer will conduct standard sobriety tests in view of the video camera and, if the driver fails, the tape will provide hard evidence in court, police said.

Mr. Newby also said the camera would help ensure officer safety. He cited a case in Texas a few years ago in which investigators used police video footage that recorded an officer's slaying, leading to the arrest of his killer.

Many law enforcement agencies agree that the use of police video can greatly reduce the time officers spend in the courtroom.

Cpl. Steven Bodway, traffic superintendent for the Harford County Sheriff's Department, has been using a video camera in his police car for the last 18 months.

With video footage of drunken driving cases and fatal accidents, said, "we just show the defense attorney the tape before the trial, and the accused will generally plead [guilty]."

The Havre de Grace video camera, unlike the one used by the sheriff's department, cannot easily be removed from its mount. The recording equipment is locked in the patrol car trunk in a crash-proof box to prevent theft.

Some Havre de Grace citizens are concerned about the police use of video cameras.

"It sounds a little like Big Brother to me," said Renee J. C. Collins, a waitress at the Crazy Swede restaurant on Union Ave. "I'm torn about it. It's an emotional issue.

The use of this camera depends on the moral fiber and integrity of the police department."

Stuart Comstock-Gay, executive director of the Maryland chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said police use of video cameras in public places probably wouldn't violate citizens' right to privacy.

But he added: "Using videotape is a dangerous game because the camera can lie, if you only show part of the video. Videotapes need to be looked at skeptically because we've come to accept the video eye as some kind of a truth. A camera angle can change everything."

Police in Anne Arundel, Howard, Frederick, Montgomery, Prince George's and Washington counties and Baltimore also use video cameras.

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