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Digital Technology Impacts Interface Between Public, Police, News Media

Scorpion micro digital camera.

Scorpion micro digital camera.

Alameda, with a handful of its own high-tech companies, sits a short drive from Silicon Valley proper, or a short BART ride from Twitter’s San Francisco offices. The impact of these tech firms within a stones-throw of Alameda is changing the way local law enforcement interacts with the public, and the news media.

According to a recent PewResearch Journalism Project report, almost one-in-ten American adults (8 percent) get news via Twitter.

It has become de rigueur for news outlets, both nationwide and local, both professional and citizen-guided, to publish articles electronically, and subsequently post links to their articles to Twitter. It’s also common for a news outlet to post developing story updates directly to Twitter, bypassing its own website. (Action Alameda News is no exception to either case.)

Law enforcement agencies have taken to Twitter too, bypassing the news media to reach the public directly to warn of traffic conditions or to catch criminals.

We’ve come a long way from a simple listing of the police blotter in the local print weekly.

Earlier this year, AOL announced that it would be shuttering some 400 Patch local news sites; the impact on Alameda’s local Patch site so far seems to be a greater emphasis on citizen contributed content. Companies like Google, of Mountain View, with digital ad networks, have long been scooping advertising revenue from local news publications, hence AOL’s challenges with the Patch properties.

In some jurisdictions, technology such as the ever-present smart phone camera, exemplified by the iPhone from Apple, of Cupertino, is putting citizens at odds with law enforcement or other public safety agencies. Carlos Miller of Florida runs the website Photography is Not a Crime, where he publishes examples of law enforcement officers, firefighters or other officials arresting, threatening or intimidating individuals for exercising their First Amendment rights to take pictures or record video in public. (Carlos himself has been arrested several times and is in currently in trouble with the Boston police for posting the information for a Public Information Official, who complained about being recorded.)

Locally, Chief Paul Rolleri, of the Alameda Police Department told Action Alameda News, with regards to recording police officers in public, “The ‘training’ regarding members of the public recording police activity is simply that it’s fine and they should expect it. Almost everyone has video recording capability on their cell phones, and there’s no law that prevents it. However, if the person making the video impedes or interferes with the officers doing their duty, then there could be a problem. So, for example, if officers are inside of a designated crime scene, a citizen can videotape from outside of the scene, but could not come inside of the yellow tape to videotape something. Also, officers may direct a person to move away if their presence prevents the officers from conducting their investigation.”

Correspondingly, Alameda police use technology to collect evidence and record the interaction of officers and members of the public. Recently, Chief Rolleri released to the media audio recordings from Digital Audio Recorders (DARs) carried by officers in the field, in response to a complaint about improper officer behavior during a traffic accident investigation.

Regarding a potential move from audio to lapel-mounted video cameras for officers, Rolleri said, “Yes, I do plan to evaluate some form of a body/lapel camera. I have had a couple of vendor demonstrations. I am uncertain if I will implement them, but I am very interested in doing so. As with ALPR’s, [Automated License Plate Readers] I would need to identify a funding source, get approval, select a vendor, and develop a policy regarding their use. All of this will take some time.”

And as the police chief alluded, the Alameda Police Department has been investigating the deployment of automated license plate reader technology to automatically scan vehicle license plates.

Some Alameda residents have raised privacy concerns over the license plate readers, and the Alameda Police Department refused a public records request from Action Alameda News for data collected from a field trial of the devices.

The upshot is that the relationship now between law enforcement, news media and the public rests on constantly shifting ground. If your neighbor works at one of the Bay-area tech giants enabling this new digital environment, you may have him or her to thank. Or blame.

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