Acceptance of body-worn video and audio recorders is rapidly growing among police and emergency service departments while manufacturers are pointing to steady advances in their technology and ease of use.
The Taser Axon System
Various manufacturers of wearable cameras now offer longer recording time and battery life, date and time stamps, authentication certificates and external video storage systems. For nearly 20 years, police cruisers have been equipped with dashboard video systems that have provided indelible evidentiary record and has aided police and civilians alike. Significantly, a 2004 International Association of Police Chiefs (IACP) report says 93 percent of officers charged with misconduct were exonerated when in-car systems video was available. Unfortunately, the court record was not so favorable for events that happened outside the view of the stationary camera.
In use for a relatively few years, body-worn cameras take the public almost everywhere an officer goes, and advocates say that is a good thing. “From a department standpoint, we really feel that this is a game changer and the next big thing for law enforcement,” says Lake Havasu (Ariz.) Police Department Capt. Joe Fiumara. There is an “interesting dynamic and a great advantage” in using a technology that provides both sides of any argument, he said.
“If you feel that police tend to be abusive or violate rights in certain ways you might see an advantage in having the entire context of an encounter,” Fiumara said. Conversely, the department has seen a drop in complaints against police.
The body-worn equipment is also an asset in terms of training, according to Fiumara. “When we don’t do things in the best way possible, I’d rather know exactly what happened and learn from our mistakes,” he says.
In addition, body-worn cameras can be a help to police investigations, says Heidi Traverso, business development director for VieVu, maker of the PVR-LE2. For example, victims are less likely to recant in court if an officer wears a camera while responding to a domestic violence complaint and the video is used as evidence, said Traverso, a former Seattle police officer. That makes it more likely that the family in distress gets the help it needs from family services.
VidMic’s X2 System
Nonetheless, not all police departments are enthusiastic about the prospect of using body-worn cameras, and some officers believe the cameras are intrusive and might hinder law enforcement efforts. “There are still some opinions that are less supportive or outright against having what we [law enforcement] do revealed,” Fiumara says. “I think that’s unfortunate.”
Cameras are useful tools, but agencies have to have a good solid policy in place for them, says Mike Fergus of the IAPC. Such a policy governs when the cameras are to be turned on or off and who has access to the video. To help resolve some of the issues, Lake Havasu police officers met with prosecutors, the defense community and with a few interested judges to discuss privacy and the 4th Amendment before adopting a body worn camera system.
Aside from reticence on the part of police officers, funding is another issue preventing more departments from adopting body-worn cameras. “Even if law enforcement were to wholeheartedly embrace it [body-worn cameras] tomorrow, it’s going to be a while before everyone can afford to make it happen,” Fiumara says.
Most companies offer a trial period for their products and Traverso recommends that police departments take advantage of that offer. “There’s a reason companies have a trial period,” she said, adding, “It either works for you or it doesn’t.” Less costly cameras are available, but those generally have no security features to prevent recordings from being erased, which makes images problematic if they are intended for use in court. Funds can be taken from training and equipment budgets and repurposed, and federal grants are also potentially available. Police and emergency departments can go to policegrantshelp.com for assistance in finding funding sources.
However, an incentive to acquire wearable cameras is the claim they can pay for themselves. A study done for Seattle concluded that body-worn video cameras could pay for themselves in four months because of the difference between the millions of dollars previously paid out in legal settlements, and the savings achieved when complaints are dropped when video is available. In addition, officers can spend more time on patrol rather than appearing in court being paid overtime.
Digital Ally’s FirstVu
Digital Ally is offering its portable FirstVu as a convenient way to augment its well-known in-car video systems. It can mount in a car or clip to an officer’s uniform with a number of attachment options. Providing officers with the ability to leave the area of a car wearing a camera is Digital Ally’s response to a department’s limited funding, according to Michael Millhollen, the company’s marketing specialist. “For all the things that take officers away from their vehicle, body-worn cameras are really the only option,” he said.
The FirstVu features a 16GB memory, one button start/stop record, and a rechargeable, easily removable built-in battery pack for between three and 12 hours of operation. In addition, the FirstVu has “one of the widest recording views,” Millhollen said. Users can place “it on a belt and record someone’s face.”
With the integrated 2.2-inch color liquid crystal display (LCD) monitor, an officer can easily review what is recorded and sort through the system’s various functions, according to the company.
To protect the chain of custody, recorded evidence cannot be edited or deleted from the system. Video is watermarked to prevent tampering, is password protected and users are logged. Included is VideoManager software that enables the integrity of a recording to be checked, while logging every use and generating a chain-of-custody report. The software is upgradeable. If the FirstVu is used in combination with a Digital Ally in-car system, data from both can be downloaded with the same date and time stamp.
TASER AXON SYSTEM
The Lake Havasu Police Department chose the Taser Axon system after participating in the system’s Beta test period. Fiumara reports that Taser responded to officer feedback about comfort levels over a long shift, and the camera and microphone are combined into a headset that fits onto the officer’s ear. The headset avoids problems such as the image being blocked by the officer’s arm movements or other impediments encountered in the course of an investigation, he said. “It provides the best information from the officer’s perspective,” he added.
The Axon headset attaches to the “Com Hub” that contains a push-to-talk and start/stop event record switch which links to a portable computer/ recorder and the officer’s radio. The Axon computer is worn on the body, features a 4.3 inch touchscreen and runs on a Linux processor. The head camera has 110 degrees of field of view from its lens. The cameras are waterproof and have security logins that prevent access if the system is stolen or lost. The computer plays back the video and can record the officer’s narration of an event. Rechargeable batteries provide a run-time of up to 12 hours.
At the end of a shift, the officer places the computer into a specially made bank of cradles and the data is automatically uploaded to a cloud-based memory via proprietary software accessed through Evidence.com. The system is secured with 128-bit military-quality encryption.
While saving data on cloud system is pricey, it can be worth it because departments do not have to maintain a server farm or extra information technology personnel, Fiumara says.
VidMic was the first company to market body-worn video cameras; its X2 system is a combination video and still camera as part of a shoulder mike, and it features an LCD screen. The officer carries no additional equipment to record incidents.
A larger lens than was available on the original version increases the field of view. There is 8GB of memory and up to 12 hours of battery life in standby mode and four hours of recording time. The video is high quality. A key element of the X2 is its evidence-management software, which prevents evidence from being downloaded without proper authorization.
A simpler system is the waterproof, wide-angle VieVu PVR-LE2 that clips onto the front of an officer’s uniform and is turned on by opening the lens cover. It offers four hours of recording time, a four-hour battery and 4GB memory. The unit has an LED status light to indicate functions and warn the user when memory or the battery runs low. The high-quality color video is protected by digital security and loaded into department computers with proprietary VERIPATROL software (for which VieVu provides free software updates for life). The PVR-LE2 works well in low light conditions with a date and time stamp.
Once linked, the camera can only download to the same computer, so if it is lost or stolen it will not work with another device. PVR-LE2 video files meet IACP recommendations for security and are tamperproof.
NEW CASE LAW LIKELY
During the past few years, companies have left the wearable video equipment market, and some have recently joined the marketplace, while others have made noticeable improvements to their products. The market for those tools is still young and the debate about their legality and usefulness continues. “There will be new case law that develops. I don’t know what it will be,” Fiumara predicts. “We really feel that it’s going to be an improvement for the country.”