Will On-Body Kill In-Car Video?

Law enforcement agencies have been using in-car video cameras for a little more than two decades. The devices have defended officers against nuisance claims of abusive or even brutal behavior. But now some agencies are beginning to ask if in-car video systems have been made obsolete by officer-worn systems.

David Griffith 2017 Headshot

Photo courtesy of CopTrax.Photo courtesy of CopTrax.Law enforcement agencies have been using in-car video cameras for a little more than two decades. The devices have defended officers against nuisance claims of abusive or even brutal behavior, helped bring cop killers to justice, provided critical evidence against talkative prisoners, and even helped train officers how to protect themselves during traffic stops. But now some agencies are beginning to ask if in-car video systems have been made obsolete by officer-worn systems.

Case in point—the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department. Last year the city of Charlotte played host to the Democratic National Convention, which meant the combined city-county police force received a bounty of new equipment through federal grants and other funding. Among the tools the CMPD received was TASER Axon officer-worn video systems for its motor unit. The new video systems received rave reviews from the motor officers and their supervisors.

This made the CMPD's brass start thinking about its video requirements and how to best meet them. The department's in-car video systems are beginning to show their age and replacing them will cost considerably more than outfitting each patrol unit with a brand new TASER Axon. So the city-county police department is now conducting an experiment to determine if officer-worn video can replace its in-car systems. 

CMPD has acquired 26 additional TASER Axons and equipped two officers from each of its 13 divisions with the officer-worn units. The officers participating in the experiment are still using their in-car systems, but they are also being instructed to trigger event recording on their Axons when they hit lights and sirens.

CMPD's Maj. Steve Wills says the agency knows the results may not be 100% positive for either the in-car or the on-body cams. "There's gives and takes on both of them, but we're trying to evaluate what our losses and savings would be if we went with a full solution of just on-body cameras, and we did not put cameras in the cars."

The Charlotte experiment and other similar tests by other agencies have raised the attention of all parties with skin in this game, including the manufacturers of in-car and officer-worn video systems, other agencies, and law enforcement video experts.

The In-Car Companies

In-car video systems makers know they are going to be increasingly pressured by the economics of on-body vs. in-car systems. The price differential is substantial. In-car systems can run as much as $6,000 per car and they have to be installed. The most expensive officer-worn systems are available for less than $1,000 apiece. So the direct economics certainly favor on-body systems.

But there's more to this issue than just pure price comparison. The discussion of on-body vs. in-car cameras also involves concerns about officer safety, public safety, and evidentiary documentation.

In-car cameras currently have an advantage over officer-worn systems in terms of traffic safety because of their hands-free operation. Most in-car systems are set up to trigger automatically when the car speeds up, when the officer hits the brakes, when the officer activates lights or sirens, or when the car collides with another object. The hands-free operation is particularly critical in a pursuit.

"In a pursuit, the last thing you're thinking about is starting a recording," says John Cusick, Panasonic's product manager for mobile security and a former law enforcement officer. "Having to push buttons and start a recording in the middle of high-stress driving would be a disadvantage to the officer."

Panasonic is in an unusual position in the discussion of on-officer vs. in-car cams. The company makes and markets both. But Cusick says Panasonic's not worried about damaging the sales of its Arbitrator in-car systems with its WVTW310 on body camera system. "I think the two are going to complement each other very well," Cusick says. "Our back-end system can manage the data from both and manage it as evidence. It even manages still images and documents." 

Like Panasonic, Digital Ally makes both in-car systems (the DVM line) and on-body systems (FirstVu), and it is working hard to integrate the two. Digital Ally's back-end software handles the video from both systems. The company has also developed a way to add functionality to the FirstVu HD on-body camera through a link to a DVM.

Digital Ally calls its connector between its in-car and on-body systems the VuLink. It's essentially a small hardware device that sends signals from Digital Ally's in-car video systems to the company's on-body camera system and operates the on-body unit hands-free. "VuLink makes the FirstVu HD body camera capable of being the same hands-free non-distraction as the in-car video systems," says Greg Dyer, Digital Ally's national sales manager. "VuLink also links up the body camera and in-car video recordings in the back office software."

Dyer argues that FirstVu is not competing with Digital Ally's in-car systems. "We've had portable video systems going back to 2005 when we started carrying the digital video flashlight. It's such a different perspective and such an officer-specific point of view that it offers a totally different insight," he says.

Digital Ally is clearly hearing from the industry about the need for feature-rich yet budget-friendly in-car systems, however, and it is doing something about it. Dyer says the company has shaved nearly $2,000 off the price of its new DVM.

And Dyer points out that in-car systems offer some value that is not currently available through on-body systems. "What we've seen is that agencies want to continue using both systems," he says. "The in-car systems provide them with information such as radar data on the person who was speeding, GPS mapping, and the officer's speed."

In the very near future in-car cameras may provide even more data, including streaming video. That's one of the selling points of CopTrax, an innovative in-car video system offered by Stalker.

CopTrax runs on the car's laptop, which receives data from the video cameras. It can also integrate with smartphones using them as on-body cameras and with Google's wearable computer system called Glass. But the real innovation in CopTrax is that it is designed to provide law enforcement supervisors with real-time information and streaming video about what is happening in the field.

Supervisors can follow the operations of their officers in the field through Web-based software. Demonstrating the technology, video product manager Bill Switzer showed real-time images of the Bastrop (Texas) Police Department over a secure Website. He was viewing them from Stalker's offices in nearby Plano, and I was viewing them from North Carolina.

Switzer believes such real-time video has the potential to save officer lives. And he thinks the key to developing such tools is for the law enforcement video manufacturers to pay more attention to what is happening in the consumer market such as the development of Google Glass. "Commercial off-the-shelf products are outpacing dedicated law enforcement technology so fast that it's not even funny," Switzer says.

According to Switzer, tools like CopTrax may make combination in-car, wearable computer systems the wave of the future. He argues that the in-car vs. on-body debate will be moot as the technology advances.    

The On-Body Companies

For their part many of the on-body camera companies see their products co-existing with in-car video, not supplanting it. They say that 5% of police operations are conducted from vehicles and they are happy to leave that to the in-vehicle video systems while they work to create solutions to video the other 95%.

"We don't position our products against in-car," says Vievu president Steve Lovell. "The way we see it, the more video the better. The Boston Marathon bombing suspects were identified, the case was solved, and the surviving suspect will be prosecuted on layers and layers of video. The more video an agency deploys the better it can protect itself and the public."

Lovell, who retired as a sergeant with the Oakland Police Department before taking the helm of Vievu, says the company has never seen in-car video as an obstacle. "We don't think in terms of buy body worn or buy in-car," he says.

Instead, Lovell says he sees in-car video as a bridge to Vievu. "From the earliest days of our company, I went out to the in-car manufacturers and I made our products available to them so that they could make their back-end software ingest our videos," he says. "We did that because typically agencies have already purchased an in-car system and the infrastructure. So we thought it was very important that our cameras be able to plug right in and port into their databases."

Like Vievu, TASER International—makers of Axon, Axon Flex, and Body officer-worn video systems, believes most agencies benefit from both in-car and officer-worn systems. "I think they can still complement each other, just like the TASER has complemented pepper spray and batons," says Steve Tuttle, TASER's vice president of communications. "What we offer is another tool in the toolbox, and agencies will choose what's working best for them."

Agencies and Experts

What many agencies are discovering is that having both systems works for them, at least for now. Even the Charlotte-Mecklenburg PD, which is considering going to officer-worn to save money would probably choose to field both, if price was no object. "The officers are in support of having both devices," says Maj. Wills.

Both in-car and on-body is the choice of the Brazos County (Texas) Sheriff's Office. A big believer in wearable systems, Brazos County SO actually worked with Panasonic on the development of the company's on-body system, but it has no desire to swap in-car for on-body video. The agency has purchased 40 Panasonic on-body systems, but Lt. Thomas Randall says that traffic operations are still best captured by in-car video cameras.

"With a fixed, in-car camera you get a better view of the traffic stop," Randall says. "You can see a better picture of how the violator's car was traveling before the stop, you get multiple angles, and you can also see if there are any occupants in the car besides the driver."

Mike Fergus, a video specialist with the International Association of Police Chiefs, agrees with Randall that in-car video is still preferred for traffic stops. "What you gain from that in-car camera is an objective view of the scene," Fergus says, stressing that IACP has not taken an official stand on this issue. "With an on-body camera, you only see what the officer is seeing. You don't see the officer and sometimes you don't see things like a passenger throwing evidence out of a window. The in-car camera captures all of that."

Some agencies are attempting to use a fixed on-body camera mounted on the windshield of a patrol car to produce the perspective of an in-car video system. Fergus is not a fan of that idea. "The problem I have with replacing in-car systems with something like that is that there's a lot of information that in-car cameras provide that you don't get with on-body," he explains.

Fergus says the information that in-car cameras can provide about how an officer was driving prior to an accident is valuable enough to warrant their purchase. And he fears agencies seeking to replace their in-car systems with on-body cameras just to save money, may be chasing fool's gold.

"If you lose a $2 million lawsuit because you couldn't show that your officer had the lights and siren going when responding to a call and colliding with another vehicle in an intersection, then how much are you really going to save," he says.

Fergus stresses that point to chiefs who ask him about replacing in-car cameras with body worn units. "Body-worn cameras are great," he says. "I love them and every officer should be wearing them, but remember what unique information you can get from in-car cameras and don't discount its value."

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