Cruising the Redondo Beach Esplanade with an alert eye, Police Officer David Stauffer responds quickly as the driver of a silver BMW nonchalantly zooms straight ahead from a left-hand turn pocket and cuts off another car.
Stauffer, completing his fifth week with the Redondo Beach Police Department, flips a quick U-turn in his squad car and follows the BMW, as his training supervisor, Officer Jim Toti, reaches for a red button on the dash.
A video camera mounted in the roof near Toti's head quietly starts to record every moment in the brief pursuit. Within two blocks, the BMW pulls over, its driver clearly irritated.
"What? What did I do?" he asks as the camera tapes Stauffer's cautious approach toward him.
"May I see your driver's license and the car's registration?" Stauffer replies politely. As he writes out a citation, a microphone in his shirt pocket records every word of the conversation and broadcasts it to Toti.
Though the traffic stop is a common event, its high-tech witness--an experimental training tool for new officers--is not so common. After three months in front of the camera, however, training officers say it should be.
The $4,500-dollar video camera's unblinking eye has caught small mistakes that might have gone unnoticed or that a supervisor might have forgotten to mention at the time, training officers say.
The sound transmission also lets training officers stand back and listen in on a conversation without hovering too near a trainee, giving the new officers greater autonomy while their supervisors retain an ideal vantage point.
"It's a good learning tool," Toti said. "It's something I certainly didn't have when I started (as a field trainer), but I wish I had had it. It's a great visual aide, where I can show them, 'Now, this is what you did, and I don't want you doing it again.' "
Having both a camera and a supervisor track their every move was a daunting prospect at first, but trainees say they quickly became accustomed to the camera and now welcome the guidance it provides.
"I saw myself when I was searching a suspect, that I was opening myself up for a blow by his left arm," Stauffer said. "I think the (supervisor) saw it, too, but right then, at the time, they can't say anything because you're with a subject, and you have to concentrate on that."
The video device, called a DocuCam, was created in 1987 by Tech Systems, an Atlanta-based company that specializes in security camera systems and cable television network designs.
The camera hangs from the squad car's ceiling next to the rear-view mirror. An electrical cord connects it the taping device, which sits in a special cooling chamber in the trunk of the car.
The DocuCam was first developed for the Georgia State Patrol.
"We work solo here, with only one trooper to a car, and the troopers were saying that they felt vulnerable," Georgia Cpl. Eddie Smith said. "We wanted a means of establishing a record of exactly what happens between a trooper and a violator."
Using money returned under federal narcotics asset forfeiture laws, the patrol bought 27 cameras in the spring of 1987 and quickly gathered enough money to expand the number to 200. Ultimately, Smith said, the patrol would like to have a DocuCam in each of its 800 squad cars.
In the Georgia units, the video camera automatically starts up every time a squad car's emergency lights are flipped on. The camera also can be operated manually for special shots, Smith said.
"We can take it out of the car to film an entire search procedure, to take pictures at an accident scene, to do any number of things," Smith said. "The troopers love it. They say it's like an invisible eye there watching over them, protecting them from allegations of wrongdoing. . . . The public loves it as well, because it protects them from any abuse on the part of the trooper."
Under regulations adopted when the system was first installed, troopers turn in the tapes from the cars at the end of each shift. The tapes are then kept for at least two years, or until any case relating to the tape has been completed.
Delighted to have a front-seat vantage point, judges also have become fans of the system.
"It puts the judge on the scene. . . . It can be used for the state or for the defense," said Walton County, Ga., Superior Court Judge Greg Adams. "I don't hesitate to admit it as evidence."
The camera system has become quite popular among law enforcement agencies throughout the South, Tech Systems Vice President Darryl Keeler said. In recent weeks, the company also has been receiving orders from Nebraska, Arizona and Northern California.
Redondo Beach's single camera was the first installed in this state, he said.
While pleased by its performance as a field training tool, Redondo Beach administrators said they hesitate to put it to other uses at this time.
"I'm sure there will be questions about using it in an evidentiary manner in court, but at this point it's just an experimental thing," said Lt. Ken Keating, who oversees field training.
The department is pulling together some of the best footage shot so far to create a master training tape that can then be shown to department administrators considering other uses for the camera.
"We've certainly seen more pluses than negatives with this," Keating said. "It's another useful tool for us, and we'll just have to wait and see what uses present themselves."