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Cops' Latest Weapon: Digital Video

A TiVo-style digital video system makes it easier for officers to record law breakers and avoid frivolous lawsuits, while saving them valuable storage space unlike bulky analog tapes.

The Tyler Police Department in East Texas outfitted its 60 patrol cars with systems that take a steady stream of video. It includes a special "pre-event" feature that automatically goes back and saves the minute of footage before an officer hits the record button to mark the video.

"Now that I've got them on video, I figure, 'Let's go to court, I'd be happy to play them for you,"' Tyler police officer John Weavers said.

Tyler, a city of about 83,000 people some 90 miles east of Dallas, is one of seven police departments using a digital video system from IBM's Global Services division and , a small private company near Houston.

Police in Yakima, Wash., were the first, outfitting 35 marked patrol cars about a year ago. Tyler, which had been testing the system for months, went live with the digital video in early June.

The departments who use the systems say digital is better than analog video tapes in just about every way — they save money over the long term, are more likely to catch criminals in the act, and do a better job of protecting officers from frivolous lawsuits and citizens from unfair or abusive treatment.

"It's really just an emerging technology. What's happening is that you have a lot of departments migrating from analog to digital video for reasons of storage, management of the video, for more consistent quality," said David Hinojosa, a marketing vice president at Coban.

The systems cost from $7,000 to $10,000 per car, about the same as traditional analog video systems. With analog, however, there's the added expense of storing hundreds or thousands of video tapes taken during domestic disputes, traffic violations and drug busts.

Tyler police said they expect to save about $50,000 a year in labor, management and supply costs with the new system.

"Any time you have absolute, concrete evidence that an incident happened as the officer says, that's a good thing," said Charley Wilkison, political and legislative director of the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas. The lobbying group represents more than 100 police unions across the state.

An added bonus for officers is that information, from driver's license data to satellite GPS coordinates, can be tagged to the video, making it easy to search from officers' desktop computers.

And since it's searchable, police don't have to wade through hours of video tape cassettes to find a particular incident.

The video is saved to a high capacity computer server, eliminating the need for a staff of clerical workers and a separate storage room to file and retrieve stacks of video tapes.

In the year since the system was deployed in Yakima, it has proven especially effective in protecting police from lawsuits and complaints against officers, Capt. Jeff Schneider said.

"They tend not to go to court a whole lot once the defense looks at the video tape," he said.

The system really paid off last year when Yakima police used the pre-event to capture a person running away from where a killing had occurred.

"We had an officer just patrolling town, and he was able to catch a suspect fleeing the scene of a murder we didn't even know had occurred yet," Schneider said.

When a call went out about the slaying minutes later, the officer was able to get footage of the suspect, who was about 300 feet away when he was recorded trying to leave the area. The man was later charged with the murder.

In Tyler, Weavers said he enjoys the system's convenience and ease of use.

When he starts his daily patrols, he takes a black metal disk drive about the size of a slice of bread and plugs it into a machine anchored to the floorboard of his cruiser.

At the end of his shift, Weavers takes the drive to a computer station at the office, and in a few minutes downloads the day's videos onto the central computer. He marks as evidence videos he wants to preserve. Those not marked are automatically deleted in 90 days.

Tyler police aren't stopping with digital video. While still months away, the next step is to add a wireless Internet network that will allow department headquarters to watch the streaming videos in real time, Sgt. John Bausell said.

"I think they're about to explode in the market," Bausell said of the video systems. "You're going to start seeing it pretty widespread."

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