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Digital Eyes

The latest generation of in-car video systems offers features that could only be dreamed of in analog systems.

July 23, 2009  |  by David Griffith and Dean Scoville


Data 911's in-car video is part of a complete mobile data system.

Next to concealable soft body armor few advances in technology have saved more American law enforcement officers than the development of in-car video systems.

In-car video systems have justified uses of force, exonerated officers accused of abuse, and incriminated motorists who were culpable of offenses. In-car video systems have even saved officers' lives by providing law enforcement with numerous vivid examples of what not to do at a traffic stop that can be used for training.

With each succeeding generation of cameras, improvements have been made in clarity, recording time, storage, and transfer capabilities. Physically, they are now designed to be less obtrusive to the officers working in the cars. Some agencies such as the Los Angeles Police Department even have cameras mounted so as to document what happens in the rear of the patrol vehicle.

But by far the greatest technological innovation in the short history of in-car video has been the advent of digital recording systems. Whether they capture video on DVD discs, hard drive, or flash memory card, digital systems offer much greater resolution and easier and less expensive evidence storage than earlier analog VHS machines. They also capture the prelude to incidents by constantly recording video on a loop.

The following is a quick look at some of the finest digital in-car video systems on the market and why certain agencies selected them for their vehicles.

Data 911

The word "system" is really the only way to describe Data 911's digital video product. It's a module in a system that includes a ruggedized computer, computer-aided dispatch software, automated field reporting, and other tools. You can even add automated license plate recognition as an option.

The Mobile Digital Video (MDV) system is Data 911's complete mobile video capture solution designed for the specific challenges within public safety environments. The system employs a web-based, user friendly software interface supported by comprehensive server side software.

One of the coolest things about Data 911 mobile video equipment is that it can stream live video of an incident back to a watch commander or supervisor. The MPEG-4 or H.264 compression video can be streamed to a remote viewer and recorded simultaneously. Another great feature is the integrated mapping. The VidNet back-end Web-based system utilizes your agency's GIS maps to provide real-time vehicle information.

User Experience: The Data 911 video capture system is in operation with the Pacifica (Calif.) Police Department. Four years ago the agency went from VHS to an all digital system.

"All the data now sits on a server, and it's all electronic," says Eric Ruchames, the Pacifica PD's project manager. "Anyone with proper authority can now view the videos from any workstation in the building."

Pacifica PD's digital video is automatically downloaded when the patrol vehicle returns to the station at the end of each shift. Once in the server, the data is extremely secure. And that's one of the many things that Pacifica PD likes about the system. 

"As system administrator, you can set privileges for watching and exporting the videos," says Ruchames, a retired watch commander. "We don't let our officers view any videos other than their own, and no one can make copies other than the system administrator. That way, they won't show up on TV or YouTube."

Digital Ally

The advanced design of Digital Ally's DVM-500 system maximizes valuable real estate within the patrol car by integrating the entire video system into a replacement rearview mirror.

The 3.5-inch color video monitor is located behind a one-way mirror so that it's invisible when not in use. Buttons located around the margin of the mirror control the camera, microphone, speaker, and recording features. A GPS marking feature pinpoints the cruiser's location at the time of the incident being recorded. The system includes both a forward-mounted camera and a covert rear seat camera with infrared LEDs to capture sufficient video evidence to prosecute criminals.

User Experience: The West Virginia State Police have used the Digital Ally DVM-500 in their patrol cars for two-and-a-half years. Cpl. Jerald Dornburg cited price and the DVD recording capability as the two main reasons the department chose Digital Ally over other systems that utilize hard drives or servers.

With 62 offices dispersed throughout the state, the ability for individual supervisors to replace the flash card, review the footage, and burn and save DVDs for evidentiary use is an important factor for this department. They also found the units to be easy to install, taking less than 30 minutes per unit.

Federal Signal

The new VelocityCAM in-car data and video system from Federal Signal is designed to be extremely flexible. Users can choose to download video wirelessly, record it to removable memory, or burn it to CD or DVD.

VelocityCAM's hardware package includes a 36x and 432x digital zoom front camera that can capture images in extremely low light and an infrared camera for capturing video in total darkness. The system's 2.4GHz wireless microphone includes a compact transmitter with a 49-inch lapel mic and a 16-foot internal mic for capturing sound from the back seat. Recording can be initiated by a variety of triggers, including radar gun readings.

Features of the VelocityCam system include remote access to the car cameras and real-time fleet tracking. A GPS camera can be used to pinpoint the location where a suspect has thrown contents from his or her car.

User Experience: VelocityCAM is in initial testing by a number of agencies.

ICOP

With its dashboard-mounted video system, ICOP's 20/20 digital video system replaces the AM/FM radio slot in most patrol cars and provides built-in AM/FM radio within the system to compensate.

If other externally-mounted equipment prevents the use of the radio slot, the system alternatively can be mounted in the center console or on a pivoting arm. The system's true flexibility comes from its ability to operate three different cameras and three different audio sources, and to record up to two cameras simultaneously.

User Experience: Sgt. Jeff Kazel of the Duluth (Minn.) Police Department says the 20/20's versatility was one of the selling points of the ICOP system to his agency. "We're currently transferring data via hard drive, but we're setting up a wireless download system," he explains.

Another reason that the Duluth PD likes the 20/20 is its ability to track discarded evidence. "We really like the GPS recall button," Kazel says. "It allows you to mark certain locations. For example if somebody throws something out the window of a moving vehicle, you can mark the location by hitting a button and capturing the location's GPS coordinates. Then you can go back and find whatever the suspect threw out of the vehicle."

L3 Communications

The latest in-car video solution from L3 is the Flashback 2, which uses CompactFlash solid state flash memory. This is an extremely stable and, as the name implies, compact recording medium. Consequently, the Flashback 2 system can absorb great shock and vibration, and the recording unit is small enough to fit in a glove box.

The Flashback 2 captures video from two sources, audio from three sources, and metadata. It has a forward-facing color camera with 12x optical zoom and 12x digital zoom. The camera has a 1x-lux sensitivity that can be improved to 0.03 lux, so it's excellent for night use.

User Experience: The Irving (Texas) Police Department has been using the Flashback 2 in its 97 patrol cars since August 2008. The agency had been using an L3 VHS system until January 2008 when it switched to the all-digital Flashback 1.

Irving was still in the testing process for the Flashback 1 when the Flashback 2 was released so it was upgraded without charge. Patrol Administrator Ron Hargrove says the improvement over the Flashback 1 was significant. "The video resolution was improved, and the back end is a lot easier to use."

Hargrove says the department is very pleased with the Flashback 2, especially when compared with the prior VHS system. "Downloading is automatic," he explains. "The files go directly to the server upstairs, and the officers never have to touch them. All they have to do is pull up their videos on the computer upstairs after they are downloaded and assign them to a case."

Safety Vision

The top of Safety Vision's law enforcement in-car video line is the PatrolRecorder 4C. This system captures video with up to four cameras and saves the files to a mobile-rated removable hard drive. Files can be downloaded wirelessly or by removing the hard drive.

Features of the PatrolRecorder 4C include live video streaming. With GPS mapping, speed tracking, and recording, the PatrolRecorder 4C captures metadata for each recorded event. The system can also record and play back video simultaneously.

User Experience: The LaMarque (Texas) Police Department has been using the PatrolRecorder 4C for two years, and downloads its files wirelessly. "I really like that I do not need to go out and manually remove the videos from the cars," says Lt. Kirk Jackson. The department has 2 terabytes of external storage for saving the video produced by LaMarque's 11 public safety vehicles. "We're planning to put it in two more cars next year if the council approves them," Jackson says.

One improvement that Jackson would like to see is the ability to play the video in court with the metadata displayed. "Now we play it back in court using Windows media. I want to be able to play it back in a standalone version of the Safety Vision player." Jackson wants to use the metadata in court because it shows GPS coordinates and other pertinent information. "It even opens up a Google map and shows real time where the car was going and what speed it was going," he adds.

WatchGuard

WatchGuard's DV-1 in-car video system burns digital files to a rewriteable DVD in real time. The DVDs, which can be played on any DVD player, hold eight hours of video.

One of the selling points of the DV-1 is that users do not need any back-end equipment such as servers. All the user has to do is store the DVD. Users can also add the optional hybrid system, which uses WatchGuard's Evidence Library Software to track the storage of video files. Using this software, users can search for specific incidents using metadata.

The DV-1 comes with a 22x optical zoom, high-resolution color camera with automatic night view mode. Users can record up to 10 minutes of pre-event or post-event video. They also don't have to worry about the disc becoming too full to record. When the disc is full, a hard drive takes over to record the overflow.

User Experience: Lt. David Anthony of the Ennis (Texas) Police Department says that the WatchGuard DV-1 suited his agency's needs because it didn't require any changes in procedure. "The officers were used to checking out a VHS tape, putting it in the car, and dropping it in a secure drop box when it got full," Anthony explains. "With the WatchGuard system, their daily interaction with the video system was not changed."

The Ennis PD is considering the purchase of the WatchGuard Hybrid system so it can better organize its storage of the DVDs. But for now, Anthony says it doesn't have any problems storing the DVDs and retrieving the files when needed. "Even if we get the Hybrid, we probably won't download each disc into the server, just the metadata. We can use that to find the discs more easily," he adds.

Tags: Digital Ally, Patrol Car Video, Watchguard Video, ICOP, Safety Vision, Data 911, Federal Signal, L-3

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