In-car cameras are great for documenting what's in front of a police car, or in the back seat-but the new Panasonic Toughbook Arbitrator 360° in-car digital video system captures much, much more.
by Sanjay Talwani
It can pack up to six cameras in one law enforcement vehicle, while displaying and recording up to five feeds, including views behind and to the side of the patrol car.
It can stream live video so that personnel back at the station can take a look at what's happening, and even zoom in or change the frame rate for better quality.
"It's worked very well, beyond our expectations," said Sgt. Todd Beam of the Lincoln (Neb.) Police Department, which installed a preview version of the system in one of its patrol cars. "In fact, it worked so well in fact that we took a test system and put it into daily use."
So the department is replacing its VHS-based recording system with Arbitrator, ultimately for all its patrol vehicles. Beam is enthusiastic about its flexibility, ease of use and high audio and video quality.
Perhaps more important, the system enables easy, high-volume storage—so easy that Beam said the department will probably end up keeping footage longer than originally planned.
And best of all, the system adds just about no work for officers. They don't even have to bring a P2 card back to the station; instead, when they bring in their vehicles for fueling, the data is sucked up by Wi-Fi and onto the police servers.
YOU'RE JOKING, RIGHT?
Five years ago, Greg Peratt, director of digital video products at Panasonic Computer Solutions Co., worked his way across the country, visiting more than 200 police departments big and small, to hear what officers wanted in an camera system.
Peratt took that information to Japan, told his engineers what he wanted and at what price, and "got a resounding laugh," he said.
But that was five years ago, and Peratt's vision is now realized.
In addition to the multiple cameras, the live streaming and the Wi-Fi upload, the 360° uses H.264 compression and up to four SDHC memory cards for 128 GB of storage-four times the capacity of previous models.
"Customers were telling us, 'Storage is killing us,'" Peratt said.
It also comes with a wireless mic system with a 1,000-foot range.
It continuously saves 90 seconds of video in a bufferan awful lot of time in the context of traffic accidents and violations. Like previous models, there are a host of "triggers" to get the cams to start full recording-activating lights or sirens, striking an object, or opening a car door for example.
Some improvements are in the software. For example, now the system can adjust vehicle settings or provide upgrades remotely, from an administrator's desk, instead of doing it manually in each vehicle. When better compression schemes become available, for example, that software upgrade can happen remotely.
Also, the front-facing cam—formerly with a shotgun 50° view, which might miss the entire passenger side of a pulled-over vehicle—has been widened to 68°, thanks to user feedback.
And then there's the image quality.
The 32 GB SDHC cards stay under lock and key. Sgt. Beam said the pictures look great, even in low light. And the audio is sounding great as well, even in the tricky conditions of the street.
Peratt said the good video quality comes from the fact that Panasonic has been in the video business for about half a century and, unlike some dash-cam manufacturers, builds just about all its own components-lenses, software, chipsets and memory cards.
And high-quality components make for a high-quality camera.
"Our lens costs more than our competitors' entire cameras," said Peratt.
So do the patrol officers like it?
"From their perspective, it's easy to use and doesn't add to their workload," said Beam. And with wide coverage from the multiple cameras, the officers know they have good evidence of hat transpired, as well as protection against false complaints.
On the cars in Lincoln, the cameras are not hidden, but not exactly overt either, sitting among the usual squad car cluster of lights, antennas and other devices. The rear-facing cam is less prominent than the front cam, but the idea is not to covertly film people.
And while law-abiding people might assume that the presence of cameras promotes better behavior among the citizenry—especially the nearly ubiquitous front cameras for traffic stops—Beam said that the criminal element doesn't seem to care.
"We've seen some really interesting behavior that normally you wouldn't see," he said.