Before hitting the streets, Oakland police officer Huy Nguyen's routine usually goes something like this:
Gun ready? Check. Bulletproof vest strapped? Check.
Body camera secured? Check.
Wait, body camera?
"It feels uncomfortable when I don't have it," Nguyen said of the video camera that is smaller than a smartphone and is worn on his chest. "You can never be too safe."
Oakland and hundreds of other police departments across the country are equipping officers with tiny body cameras to record anything from a traffic stop to a hot vehicle pursuit to an unfolding violent crime. The mini cameras have even spawned a new cable reality TV series, Police POV, which uses police video from Cincinnati, Chattanooga and Fort Smith, Ark.
Whether attached to shirt lapels or small headsets, the cameras are intended to provide more transparency and security to officers on the street and to reduce the number of misconduct complaints and potential lawsuits.
"First and foremost, it protects the officers, it protects the citizens and it can help with an investigation and it shows what happened," said Steve Tidwell, executive director of the FBI National Academy Associates in Quantico, Va. "It can level the playing field, instead of getting just one or two versions. It's all there in living color, so to speak."
In Oakland, where the department is still under federal supervision because of a case in which four officers were caught planting drugs on suspects a decade ago, the cameras are like another set of eyes, said Capt. Ed Tracey.
Last year the department began a pilot program with about a dozen patrol officers wearing the VIEVU (Vee-view) body camera, and now officials hope to equip at least 350 officers by the end of summer.
Tracey said the cameras are proving helpful to a budget-strapped police force that has reduced staff while covering what is still one of the country's most dangerous cities, even though overall crime has trended downward.
The cameras, which run about $125 apiece, were brought instead of purchasing video equipment for squad cars, he said, noting that the smaller devices can also be mounted on a patrol car dashboard.
Officers are required to turn on their cameras for calls including traffic stops and possible searches. They are also required to download their video within a day and they are not allowed to edit or manipulate it. The video can be stored up to five years.
However, Tracey acknowledges some officers have had a hard time adjusting to the cameras.
"I commend the officers for their adaptability and professionalism. If they fight it or resist it, then our jobs become harder." Tracey said. "It's not an easy sell, and I get some resistance, but others see the value in them and won't go on the street without it."
Turning on the camera has become second nature, Nguyen said. "If the suspect takes off, the camera is on to capture it," he said. "You have to train yourself to remember, `Lights on, camera on.'"
Camera footage came in handy last year, Nguyen said, after a man complained that he and another officer were rude after pulling him over.
"We summoned a supervisor to the scene and took the man's complaint. Internal Affairs reviewed the video," the officer said. "The complaint was dropped."
Police officials from Seattle and Queensland, Australia, have recently visited Oakland to check out the cameras, which are used by more than 700 departments in the United States alone, said Heidi Travero, a business development director for the Seattle-based VIEVU.
"I think other law enforcement agencies will continue to look to Oakland to see how they manage the video," said Travero, a former Seattle police officer.
Across the Bay Bridge, San Francisco police said they are considering using the cameras after a recent series of surveillance videos raised allegations of misconduct during raids and drug busts.
"Enough is enough. I need to protect the hardworking men and women of the San Francisco Police Department," said Police Chief Greg Suhr before attending a recent forum with Public Defender Jeff Adachi who released the videos.
Suhr said the idea for equipping his officers with cameras came from Oakland.
"We give them bulletproof vests to protect them from the lethal force, but when your character is under attack, it's just as damaging and I think these cameras would go a long way," Suhr said.
A San Francisco police spokesman said discussions about acquiring cameras are preliminary.
Law enforcement agencies using body cameras need to have very clear and consistent objectives, said Michael Risher, an attorney with the ACLU of Northern California.
"It can't be the case where they turn them on and off and record what they want to, because all objectivity will be lost," he said. "Otherwise, these cameras should greatly improve relations between the police and the community. If it's done right."
Such cameras were introduced several years ago.
Another popular one is Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Taser International's ear-mounted AXON, which allows the police camera to be placed at eye-level.
About 16 law enforcement agencies have brought the cameras, and about 100 departments are testing them, said Taser spokesman Steve Tuttle.
San Jose police used the AXON cameras on a trial basis in 2009, but the cash-strapped department could not afford to buy them, said a police spokesman, Officer Jose Garcia.
The AXON cameras are co-stars in the new TruTV reality show, Police POV, featuring actual footage captured by officers.
Fort Smith, Ark., police officer Anthony Parkinson, who appears on the show, said the cameras depict how they often have to make split-second decisions and the footage is used for officer training.
"There are no double takes," Parkinson said. "Sure you see the dramatic stuff, but this is what we deal with on a daily basis and it shows how dangerous this job really is."