Steve Chapman

Chicago didn't get around to it until two months ago, and only 30 police cars -- out of some 2,900 -- will get the video gear. "A couple of hundred" of Houston's 1,400-plus cruisers are equipped with cameras, according to a spokesperson. As of 2003, the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics says, only about one of every five police cars in the United States had them.

Why so few? The easy explanation is that cameras don't come cheap. They cost from $2,500 to $10,000 apiece, plus expenses for training, storage and archiving, according to Jim Kuboviak, director of the Law Enforcement Mobile Video Institute.

But in this day and age, doing without cameras makes about as much sense as doing without guns or sirens. They ought to be considered standard equipment. It doesn't take too many lost convictions or damage payments to make the cost of video look like a bargain. Cities also save money because charges that might have been contested before are likely to produce quick guilty pleas when the incriminating facts are preserved in living color.

The payoff can be counted in more than dollars. In 1991, a county law enforcement officer stopped a car on a deserted road outside Garrison, Texas, only to be overpowered, beaten and stabbed to death by the three occupants. Thanks to the videotape in his patrol car, the killers were caught and eventually convicted of murder.

It's safe to say that particular police department doesn't need to be persuaded of the value of video. In-car cameras are an unmatched asset for fighting crime and establishing truth. But only if they're used.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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