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These shoulder cameras need rules
Daily Herald Editorial Board
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Published: 11/21/2008 12:02 AM

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Big Brother's reach continues to grow.

First came the ever-expanding use of cameras on street corners. Law enforcement authorities said the cameras will help them stem crime and traffic violations. Then came the news last week that Benedictine University's Police Department purchased a $700 gadget that can capture digital video and still photography _ all while being worn on an officer's shoulder.

Benedictine, a private, Catholic four-year institution based in Lisle, became the first police department in Illinois to purchase the technology. The guess here is that it will not be the only one to do so.

And that has the potential to be a good and useful tool, if its use is reliable, transparent and covered by specific regulations.

While we're certain many college students are not embracing the notion the campus cops now can record their underage drinking, the cameras just might help clear up conflicting stories in any number of cases, ranging from drinking to theft to violence.

After all, who knows what we all might have learned if officers at Northern Illinois University or Virginia Tech all had shoulder recorders working on the days they responded to the shootings at their schools. Certainly at Virginia Tech, others' camera phone video clips provided some help in the awful aftermath.

Benedictine officials strongly believe there are benefits to their new technology. All photos and videos will be admissible in court proceedings.

"The (camera) is a valuable resource that will provide an accurate depiction of events we encounter, ensure a level of officer safety and reduce potential claims against officers," Sgt. Paul Creekmore told Daily Herald staff writer Justin Kmitch. "Our entire community can be assured that inappropriate behavior will now be documented by responding officers."

But what are the assurances exactly?

What seems too much open to discretion and interpretation, at the moment, is just when officers must hit the record button and when they don't have to do so. We also wonder just how long the department will keep the recordings? Will they be available should a dispute arise months or even years after an incident occurs? Should they be? Might we have a situation where the immaturity of a teen is recorded and used against her or him years later in a job search? And if it is left to an officer to determine when to record or snap a photo, then aren't there great chances for some context and perspective to go unrecorded, thereby making the clip unreliable?

The video recorders do have the potential to both protect students' rights as much as serve as evidence against them in court proceedings.

But for these cameras at Benedictine and elsewhere to truly help police officers serve and protect us, there must be written and publicized rules for their deployment, use on the street, use in the courts and for their longevity and storage.

We urge Benedictine officials to develop specific rules for the uses of their new camera and to share them with us all soon.