The Bushkill Township (Pa.) Police Department has installed video cameras in half of its police cars to record traffic stops. The surveillance equipment collects evidence that officers can use to substantiate claims in court.

In the early 1990s, the department, which employs 10 full-time officers, began evaluating its options for installing cameras in its patrol vehicles. “We felt it would be a great way of speeding court proceedings and safeguarding officers,” says Chief Stan Coopersmith.

The department researched in-vehicle video recorders and applied for grants to use toward purchasing the equipment. The department wanted a system that would be compact, dependable, secure and affordable. Using a state grant and a contract negotiated by the South Hills Area Council of Governments, the department purchased two $6,000 cameras from Lenexa, Kan.-based Kustom Signals in June 2002.

Patrol cars with the recording systems have a video camera mounted next to the rear-view mirror. System controls, a microphone and a monitor also are mounted overhead. Officers wear microphones, so the system can record interactions with drivers during traffic stops. A VHS recorder is mounted in the trunk of the vehicle in a vault.

The recording system is activated by the officer, who can leave it running for an entire eight-hour shift or can turn it on with a transmitter attached to his belt. Alternatively, the system automatically begins recording when the vehicle's emergency lights are activated.

During traffic stops, officers notify drivers that they are being recorded on video and audio. “If [drivers] have any idea that they're being recorded, the likelihood of them trying something is reduced,” Coopersmith says. “The change in peoples' demeanor is incredible once they're notified. It's funny how the story all of a sudden changes. It's like, ‘Oh, you must have misunderstood what I was trying to say.’”

Videotapes that are not needed for evidence are stored for 90 days before they are erased and reused. The VHS tapes can be viewed by using a VCR and television.

As a result of using the video cameras, the department has cut down on the amount of time it spends in court prosecuting cases. “I don't remember the last time we had a DUI go to court,” Coopersmith says. The videotapes document drivers' behavior during roadside sobriety tests, which is difficult to dispute. “We now have a recording of the people as they were on the day of the arrest,” he says.

Although the department has only a few patrol cars and officers, it is the only law enforcement agency in Northampton County, Pa., that has video surveillance in its vehicles. Since the department had the cameras installed, it has been able to use them to help neighboring jurisdictions during joint traffic stops. “The feedback that we're getting is jealousy from the surrounding communities,” Coopersmith says. “[Cameras are] probably on everybody's wish list.”

The department plans to apply for more grants this year to equip the rest of its patrol vehicles with cameras.