For some 15 years now, American police officers have been joined on patrol by in-car video systems that document their interaction with the public.
These car cams were first installed to capture drunk drivers in all their besotted glory before they could clean up for court. They were also intended—in the years immediately following the Rodney King incident—to document officer "abuse" of motorists. But despite the belief by many in the public that the cameras would catch bad cops, they have proven in many cases to be the officer's best friend in court.
The International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) reported in 2004 that "93 percent of officers charged with misconduct are exonerated when video evidence is available." Unfortunately, that video evidence is usually only available when the incident in question takes place right in front of the officer's patrol car. And that only applies to 10 percent of all arrests, field interviews, and other actions taken by officers in addition to traffic stops.
To cover that other 90 percent, at least four companies have developed, are marketing, or plan to market body-worn video systems to law enforcement officers.
A major in-car video system manufacturer, Digital Ally announced that it was entering the body-worn video market last November at the IACP trade show in San Diego.
The company's FirstVu body-worn digital video/audio recorder is designed to augment its in-car systems. Looking something like a very thin micro cassette audio recorder, the FirstVu is worn center mass by the user. Buttons on the side activate the system and allow officers to mark particularly important footage.
Like many in-car systems, including those made by Digital Ally, the FirstVu features pre-event recording. It captures 60 seconds of data before an officer activates the camera. "Let's say you're out doing a foot patrol," says Ken McCoy, Digital Ally's vice president of sales and marketing. "All you have to do is set the FirstVu into pre-event mode and then if some overt act happens, you can simply hit the record button and it will capture the act that happened before you switched on the camera."
Because law enforcement operations tend to take place in low-light conditions, the FirstVu has an automatic infrared illumination system. This gives it the ability to capture video in almost total darkness.
FirstVu can be purchased as a standalone system or to augment Digital Ally's in-car systems. Both the in-car systems and the FirstVu use the same back end software, Digital Ally's VideoManager, for downloading and storing video files. The data is downloaded from the FirstVu via a USB 2.0 port.
Another nifty plus to the FirstVu for agencies that use the Digital Ally in-car system is that officers can watch FirstVu videos in the rearview mirror displays of their Digital Ally in-car systems.
McCoy says the combination of Digital Ally in-car system and FirstVu gives the user "seamless documentation" of a traffic stop from several angles. "Once you download both, you have two separate files with the same date and time stamp," he explains.
FirstVu is scheduled to ship some time during the third quarter of this year. At presstime, pricing had not been set, but the company says it is expected to be less than $1,000 per unit.
Calling TASER International's new AXON system a "video camera" is kind of like calling an Apple iPhone a "telephone." It's accurate but only if you take an extremely minimalist look at the thing. The AXON is not just a body-worn video camera; it's a tactical computer.
The AXON tactical computer system consists of three elements. It captures video and audio through a HeadCam. The HeadCam attaches to the Com Hub, a cigarette lighter-sized component that contains a push-to-talk and start/stop event record switch, which links to the AXON computer and the officer's radio. Finally, there's the brains of the outfit, the AXON computer itself, a body-worn Linux processor that features a 4.3-inch touchscreen.
More than just a solid state hard drive that stores data captured by the HeadCam, the AXON computer can play back video and the wearer can use it to make an audio report of the incident. This upgradeable computer processor is powered by rechargeable batteries with a runtime of as much as 12 hours.
The AXON itself is pretty cool, but perhaps the most critical piece of hardware in the TASER system is the Synapse Evidence Transfer Manager (ETM). This device is the download hub for the AXON. Each officer coming off shift connects his or her AXON to the Synapse ETM and it downloads the video and recharges the batteries. Each Synapse ETM can accommodate 24 AXON units.
Even more impressive than the hardware is TASER's software. The company acquired a California-based software engineering company (TASER Virtual Systems) to develop the back end for the AXON. The result is Evidence.com, an off-site data management system that offers safe and secure video storage to AXON users.
During a Webinar earlier this year, TASER International CEO Rick Smith told the audience that Evidence.com would launch with 100 petabytes (100 billion megabytes) of storage. He added that the system would be secured with 128-bit military-quality encryption.
As demonstrated by Smith during the Webinar, Evidence.com is designed to be more than just a storage system. It's also a tool that allows supervisors and chiefs to view incident videos on their PCs. Officers in the field can mark certain videos and even key moments of certain videos and bring them to the attention of their supervisors and commanders. By using Evidence.com's Chief's Dashboard feature, the chief or supervisor can watch all video pertaining to the incident and listen to officer reports and notes recorded on the AXON.
Exact pricing for the AXON had not been set at presstime. During the March Webinar, the company said it would be $1,700 per unit. For every 24 units purchased, TASER will throw in a free Synapse ETM. A subscription to Evidence.com is expected to cost $100 per month for 500 hours of video. In order to use AXON, an agency must subscribe to Evidence.com.
AXON is expected to begin shipping on July 28 immediately after the annual TASER conference.
VidMic, a division of Ear Hugger Safety (EHS), was first to market in the United States with a body-worn video system designed specifically for law enforcement officers.
The company has been selling its VidMic digital video camera, digital still camera, and shoulder mic combination for about 18 months. It is now in use with nearly 500 agencies nationwide.
VidMic founder Mike Marshall says the primary goal for the system was to create a body-worn video camera that would not add extra equipment to the officers. That's why the company decided to incorporate its system into a shoulder mic. "It's dual purpose," Marshall says. "First and foremost it's a shoulder mic. Then it has a couple of buttons that make it very easy to turn on the video and audio recorder."
The VidMic is also a 5.3-megapixel high-resolution digital still camera. "The quality surpasses the IACP standard for admissibility in court," Marshall says.
A single VidMic can capture 3.5 to 4 hours of video and/or as many as 1,000 still images. Marshall says he realizes that a patrol shift is more than 4 hours, but he adds that this capacity is more than enough to cover most shifts. "Most guys have no need to record three hours of what they do during a shift," he says.
VidMic files are date and time stamped to the second, and officers can mark files as critical. Files can be archived with a variety of tags such as case number to help organize them.
Marshall uses an example of a fight at a high school football game involving multiple officers to explain how the system works. "The manager (chief or supervisor) can punch in the case number, say 'XYZ,' and bring up every video from each officer who was at that fight."
Savvy officers wonder what VidMic could actually capture of a fight, since the camera is likely to be torn off the officer in a scuffle. But Lt. Sam Liddiard of the American Fork (Utah) Police Department says VidMic isn't as easy to put out of commission as some officers think.
"Sure, the officer in the fight's VidMic is likely to be blocked when he puts a bear hug on the subject, but the backup officers will have great video of everything," Liddiard explains.
All 33 officers on the American Fork PD have now been issued VidMic systems, Liddiard says. He adds that at first there was some reluctance from some of the officers to wear the system but that disappeared when a citizen made a complaint against a VidMic-wearing cop. "I took the report, then I went and looked at the video," Liddiard explains. "The citizen was lying, so I charged him with making a false police report. When our guys heard about that they were all in favor of wearing VidMics."
VidMic sells for $700 per unit.
The Vievu PVR-LE is perhaps the simplest body-worn video system on the market. It looks a lot like a pager, and all you have to do to turn it on is open the lens cover. To shut it down, all you have to do is close that same lens cover. It's that easy to use.
Weighing just 3.5 ounces, the Vievu clips to an officer's shirt right over the breast bone and captures up to four hours of 640 x 480 VGA video of everything that the officer faces. The system is waterproof.
Vievu founder and president Steve Ward was a Seattle cop for 14 years working patrol, SWAT, and bicycle patrol. He says he developed the Vievu as a means for ending "the whole officer says one thing and the suspect says another" debate.
The company opened its doors in 2007, and it started shipping units in May 2008. Vievu systems are now in operation in 14 countries and with police departments across the United States.
Capt. Ken Bernardi of the Shepherdsville (Ky.) Police Department says his agency received a Vievu for test and evaluation last year and its capabilities impressed the chief enough to make the agency buy it. "In fact, we bought that one and eight more like it," he adds.
The Shepherdsville PD has specifically issued Vievu units to its detectives and supervisors who work in unmarked cars. Detectives are using the systems for field interviews and victim interviews and the supervisors are using their Vievu units as in-car video systems during impromptu traffic stops.
Bernardi admits that one of the biggest concerns of the officers who were issued the Vievu units was what would happen to them in a struggle. "But we've decided we're not going to worry too much about it. If they get knocked off, we go back and find them after the suspect is under control."
Despite its lightweight design, Bernardi says that the Vievu has proven to be remarkably tough. "We dropped the demo a couple of times by accident. We just brushed it off and it worked just fine."
The Vievu PVR-LE sells for $699, and the Vievu PVR-LE2 with enhanced low-light capability and image quality sells for $899 per unit. Both come with Veripatrol evidence management software.