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Cover Story

On-Body Video: A Double-Edged Sword

On-body video systems can protect officers from lawsuits, but agencies need to be prepared for the footage to go public.

July 16, 2012  |  by - Also by this author

VIDEO: TASER Axon vs. Body Cam vs. Dash Cam

The Axon Flex also provides a multitude of mounting options on the uniform, headband, cap, and helmet. The sleek size and light weight of this camera also allow it to be integrated onto Oakley tactical eyewear. This flexibility allows officers to place the camera where they feel it is most comfortable, allowing them to concentrate on the situation at hand rather than thinking about the angle of their camera lens. With a little experience using body-worn camera technology, officers learn how to position themselves to maximize personal safety and recording evidence.

Another innovation in body-worn cameras was developed by Vidmic, sold nationally by EHS Inc. In an effort to minimize the number of gadgets that officers need to carry on their uniforms, the Vidmic combines a camera built into a standard shoulder-mounted microphone that most officers currently use. The only modification an officer needs to make is to carry the mic on the center of the chest rather than the shoulder. Training officers to use this camera is made easier by the familiarity they already have using the controls on a standard shoulder mic.

The CopVu camera by WatchGuard Video is another easy-to-use camera system. With a single sliding switch to activate the camera, there are no other controls that the officer needs to learn. With the switch in the off position, the camera lens is protected from dust and the elements.

Perhaps the most covert portable camera solution is the Scorpion Body-Worn DVR, which utilizes a camera that is disguised as a button or screw head. This camera captures high-resolution images, up to 1280-by-960 pixels. A hard wire transfers the images to a body-worn DVR for storage.

In addition to physical placement of the camera on the body, some cameras come in self-contained units while others are hard wired to controllers or battery packs that must also be carried on the officer's person. One tradeoff in using a standalone camera is limited battery life.

Because the Vidmic draws power from the officer's radio, it does not require any additional battery packs. When placed in standby mode and activating the camera only when needed, its three-hour charge should last an entire shift.

Similarly, the Vievu PVR-LE2 camera is fully self-contained in a lightweight unit smaller than a pack of cigarettes. This camera holds a four-hour charge, but can be recharged in the patrol car, in a standard outlet, or through a USB port on a computer. The next generation of Vievu camera, the LE-4G, will be wired to a controller, but will incorporate a breakaway cable for officer safety.

In contrast, TASER's Axon Flex camera is wired to a small controller which provides a 12-hour charge. The longer battery life of this unit allows it to continuously pre-record events so that when the recorder is activated by the officer, 30 seconds of activity that led up to the activation is automatically captured. Capturing the impetus for an officer's decision to turn on the recording equipment provides additional context for his or her actions thereafter.

Bringing a variety of features together is the FirstVu camera by Digital Ally. This lightweight, standalone camera includes 30-second pre-record capability, a 2.2-inch color LCD monitor, and multiple mounting options. Its built-in battery pack is easily removable for recharging and can provide 3 to 12 hours of operation.

If there was ever an era when an officer's word was as good as gold, it is safe to say that it has long since passed. More and more, skeptical jurors expect prosecuting attorneys to provide video footage of the alleged crime or the officers' reactions at the scene presented as part of their case. In the absence of such video—whether because the video equipment malfunctioned, the video file was lost, or the department didn’t utilize video technology—jurors today are more likely to discount the recollections of the officer on the witness stand.

In one unfortunate incident involving the Waukesha (Wis.) Police Department, a video recording was improperly tagged as a routine traffic crash rather than a use-of-force incident. As a result, the file was inadvertently deleted before the case went to trial. Rather than accept the officer’s account of the incident, both judge and jury cited the missing video as reason to believe that the department was covering up the officer’s actions and that charges against the suspect should be dropped. Had the video footage never existed, the suspect would likely have been sentenced.

Because video evidence is useless if it's misplaced or accidentally erased, many camera manufacturers provide proprietary software to store and catalog video files. Whether data is uploaded wirelessly when the patrol car pulls into the station parking lot, or the camera and DVR are physically plugged into a dedicated computer system inside the station, maintaining the security of the video and preserving the chain of evidence is of utmost importance in presenting that evidence later in court.

To help preserve the integrity of the video evidence, these cameras encode date and time stamps on the video. Also, most video storage systems allow officers to view the files, either through instant replay on a handheld controller or on a connected smart phone, but not make copies or in any way alter the file. Only designated administrative personnel are allowed to burn copies to CD or DVD to be sent to prosecutors or the courts. Discovery motions will still allow individuals and organizations to access court copies of these types of videos, but these data safety measures will greatly reduce instances of having unauthorized videos show up on YouTube or the local news broadcast.

With more departments implementing video recording systems, the public and the American Civil Liberties Union have expressed greater interest in how the video files are used. Additionally, departments that implement body-worn cameras are compelled to develop policies as to when and how long an officer must record an event, who can access the videos, how long video files will be retained, and under what circumstances videos can be released.

The proliferation of recorded evidence by law enforcement has brought forth a number of legal cases that will, for better or worse, help define departmental policies on the use of body-worn cameras. Several police departments across the nation have undertaken pilot programs to test the use of body-worn cameras. Their experiences will likewise inform future users of these devices and spur the camera manufacturers to further improve their products.

Steve Lovell, managing director of Vievu, believes that the benefits of recording and maintaining a video database outweigh any potential negative outcomes. "About 93 percent of complaints against officers that have video or audio documenting the officer's actions are exonerated," he says.

The Law Enforcement and Emergency Services Video Association (LEVA) is a professional organization that trains police video analysts across the country. LEVA president Blaine Davison predicts that future generations of body-worn video products will evolve to provide full HD resolution for under $1,000 per unit. Other advances may include real-time streaming to allow supervisors to monitor events in the field from the station and GPS tracking.

In the not too distant future, body-worn cameras may be standard issue for police officers—providing greater credibility in the courtroom, decreasing frivolous complaints against officers, enhancing officer safety, and improving police-community relations.

Related:

Body-Worn Cameras and Privacy

Turning Cops into Cameras

Shots Fired: Ogden, Utah 05-26-2006

For More Information:

Digital Ally

eWitness

Eye of Mine

SecGru Systems

Scorpion

TASER International

Vidmic

Vievu

Watchguard Video

«   Page 2 of 2   »

Tags: On-Body Video, VidMic, Taser Axon, WatchGuard Video, Digital Ally, Ogden (Utah) PD, ACLU Activism, L.A. County Sheriff

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Comments (8)

Displaying 1 - 8 of 8

DaveSAM25G @ 7/16/2012 11:14 PM

FYI: Albuquerque NM Police
APD gets new tools to prevent stop crime

http://www.krqe.com/dpp/news/crime/apd-adds-new-technology
APD adds new technology
Updated: Monday, 16 Jul 2012, 6:10 PM MDT
Published : Monday, 16 Jul 2012, 6:09 PM MDT

Dave Bryant @ 7/21/2012 11:40 AM

As an Police Officer, D.T. and Firearms Instructor who has been in two shootings, I have been interested in these issues for years. In fact I invented and patented a Critical Incendent Recorder 15 years ago that used a continous loop to record audio before and after a shooting. I offered it to Motorola and TASER (who came out with a video version later) but there was no interest. It is important to consider that one who uses this information needs to be educated on what the camera sees and does not and how the Officer's perceptions differ. Dr. Bill Lewinski has does great research in this area.

Thomas J. Nelson @ 7/22/2012 9:55 PM

I may be just repeating some post but I'll roll the dice I would be nice for male officers to have when alone with female subjects and/or juvy's but having said that big brother don't break the rules no worries be safe

Robert J. Fraser @ 7/23/2012 1:44 AM

Really interesting article. Here in Australia we are having similar issues with wearing a 'body camera'. There is some push-back from the police services generally, it does offer some protection/evidence for officers working alone here.

I believe that some trials are underway however.

westcoastleo @ 7/23/2012 2:32 PM

I've been with the LASD in the field for 32.7 years. I'm a still active Sergeant with the department. I've seen all of the new toys and worthless items put out for a long time. The public wants more and more accountability on all LEO's over the country. All the new gadgets that are made to help us usually turns against us after a short time. You can have an overhead aero unit with cameras, a button cam, a audio feed, a scent detector and all of the other tools placed on your body and around you, but it will not make a difference. If the top brass and the local, state, and federal over sight units and politicians think you are wrong or are a racist, you will still loose. The public will still lie, yell, kick the loud can and protest to have you fired or put in jail for what they believe to be wrong or violated. You can have a button camera with audio, and have a man in front of you pointing a gun at you, and if you shoot him, someone, somewhere will still complain.

Brian @ 7/24/2012 1:19 PM

@westcoastleo

If you have full coverage and there are no grey areas in what you are doing, you shouldn't have anything to worry about. Isn't that what law enforcement always tells civilians? Guess you guys will just have to make that a true statement.

wofpup @ 7/25/2012 1:58 PM

Working within the same dept as Westcoast (Sgt) but having a few more years on the dept., I have to agree with his comments. The bad guys or public will never agree with our decisions or what we do. We're all racist pigs and always use unnecessary force. Having a body video is nice, but it's always going to be a double edge sword. It's "Damn if you do and damn if you don't", type of situation. What we see and do as an LEO, the public will never understand our perspective. The respect for law enforcement no longer exist. The public will raise hell about an incident, even if a video shows LE was in the right. An attorney will attempt to make the officer look bad and use the past or another incident to make a point. The bottom line is, no matter what we do right, someone will twist it around and tarnish the our (officer's) reputation. I feel sorry for the future of LE. To the Guys/Gals of LE, remember to be safe, and go home to the family. The heck with the idiots and their thoughts. You and your partner come first. God Bless LE.

coptrainer @ 10/1/2012 6:10 AM

It is a fact that video evidence offers a true and accurate depiction of exactly what the lens saw, which is not necessarily in context with the overall event. It is incumbent upon the agency to offer perspective to what was captured by the cam.

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