The first time I came across what I considered a practical body camera for law enforcement it was at the 2007 Tactical Resource Expo (TREXPO) in a small exhibition hall just down the highway from Dulles Airport in Northern Virginia. I thought that Vievu system was a very interesting evidence capture tool, but I had no idea how important the body camera would become to police operations.
About a year later, TASER International (now Axon) launched its first body camera, the Axon Pro. Like all nascent technologies, the first Axon body camera was a bit unwieldy. It consisted of multiple components, an earpiece or eyeglass camera, an audio microphone, and a computer, which was about the size of a small smartphone, that sat atop the officer's shoulder, and had push-to-talk features so it substituted for the shoulder mic. That sounds like a ridiculous design by today’s standards, but it’s important to put it into context of the times. The first iPhone had only been released months earlier, apps were just becoming a thing, and cellular signals were still primarily for making phone calls or texting.
Those early models of police body cameras might have remained technological novelties—used by some forward-thinking agencies but not considered essential—if it wasn’t for one event: The 2014 fatal officer-involved shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO. There was no video evidence of then Officer Darren Wilson’s and Michael Brown’s actions on that fateful day, so the incident was immediately mischaracterized by false statements from an unreliable and inconsistent witness. There were protests, and riots, and investigations and police agencies realized that they badly needed body cameras.
The body camera market exploded. So much so that today, nine years after Ferguson and three years after the even more explosive George Floyd incident, it is rare to see a patrol officer who is not wearing a body camera on duty. The public demands better documentation of police activity, and the body camera is currently the best way to provide it.
As market demand for police body cameras skyrocketed, wireless data technology and mobile device technology reached new levels of sophistication. This has led to a batch of body cameras that offer next-level performance.
Axon: In April market leading Axon announced the Body 4. This new Axon system offers bidirectional communication between officers and support/command. The Body 4 can also operate more than one camera so that officers can capture a different point of view of the same scene. For example, they have the Body 4 on their chest and another camera on their hat or shoulder or wherever. This can eliminate the problem where the officer’s hands in front of their chest—often holding their duty weapon or TASER—blocks key aspects of the incident. One of the more interesting features of the Body 4 is the “Watch Me” button. Officers can press the button to alert command that they need to watch the streaming video feed of what is happening at their location. Axon says the Body 4 has a runtime of 13 hours.
i-Pro: The newest body camera from i-Pro is the BWC4000, a rugged system that is compatible with the company’s ICV4000 in-car system. Features include a detachable and swappable battery, construction that meets MIL-STD810H and IP67, three resolution levels ranging up 1080p high-definition, and hands-free recording activation from a variety of trigger sensors.
Motorola Solutions: The V700 is the top-of-the-line body camera from Motorola Solutions. Features include swappable battery, LTE for video streaming and device maintenance, and the ability to upload video from the field to the company’s Command Center communications platform. One of the most interesting features of the V700 is its ability to recover evidence after the fact. The V700 is always capturing video into its 128GB memory. That means agencies can recover video of incidents up to 114 hours after they happened, even if the camera was not activated. Like many body cameras, the V700 also features pre-event recording, which allows agencies to record up to 60 seconds of evidence before the camera was activated. The V700 is ruggedly constructed and meets MIL-STD 810G and IP67. The V700 seamlessly integrates with Aware—a cloud-based platform that provides a common operating view—as well as the M500 in-car video system, APX radios and Holster Aware sensors.
Utility: The hardware for the Utility EOS body camera system is an Android smartphone. What converts it into a body camera is software, making EOS essentially a BWC app. This combination of software and hardware gives the EOS system all of the processing power and connectivity capabilities of a smartphone. If the user’s agency permits it, you can even make calls and send texts on your body camera. Features on the EOS include the ability to connect to a wide variety of sensors for automatically activating the camera, including among others holster sensors, siren sensors, and officer down sensors. The EOS can use the phone’s accelerometer to activate when an officer is running. Geofencing can even activate the camera when the officer reaches the location of the call for service. Users can send and receive data over a public cellular data network or use Utility’s Rocket in-car router.
Looking at the feature sets of all these latest body cameras, it’s clear that manufacturers are focusing on certain key demands from their customers, including increased battery life, live streaming, and automatic activation.
Since the development of the body camera, one of the most critical concerns for law enforcement users has been battery life. Over the years, a number of cameras have failed to last an entire shift. Early cameras often had six- and eight-hour maximum runtimes. Now, runtime on some body camera batteries is 12 hours or better, but shifts often go longer during special incidents. That’s why the replaceable battery is one of the most critical features on the latest body cameras.
“The option of having that removable battery means that you can double the runtime,” says Stuart Boutell, director of evidence product management for Motorola Solutions. “I mean the job shift is not determined by the clock. The job shift is determined by the circumstance and the incident you end up responding to.”
Swappable batteries also provide insurance against battery failure. In the post-George Floyd era, the public and the media can crucify an agency and the officers involved when there is no video of an incident. Having a spare battery can save you the pain of explaining why you camera malfunctioned.
It can also save agencies money on replacement cameras or repairs. In the past one of the most common reasons that cameras had to be replaced was the batteries could no longer hold a charge. That meant the agency lost use of the camera even if free repairs and/or replacement was stipulated in their contract.
“With the field swappable battery, they don’t have to replace the entire camera when the battery deteriorates. They don’t have to send it in for service,” says David O’Connor, director of public safety for i-Pro Americas. “Instead they can purchase a relatively inexpensive battery and clip it onto the unit, and it’s good to go again.”
Battery life for Utility’s EOS system is a little more complicated. It’s based on the Android phone that serves as the hardware platform for the system. You can’t field swap the battery, but because the hardware is a phone, you can charge it in the field just like a phone.
“Since our device integrates with the uniform, we are integrating some charging capabilities into the uniform. We also have supplemental batteries you can attach directly, and later this year we’ll be coming out with a purpose-designed battery that will directly attach and be form fitted with our body worn device,” says Raymond Harrison, vice president of product management at Utility. He adds that the goal is to give officers more than 12 hours of runtime. “We will be well beyond that.”
Live from the Scene
Cellular connectivity is another feature that is coming to the forefront in the latest generation of body cameras. More and more body camera makers are touting the ability to stream live video from the scene or to upload completed video after an incident over cellular data networks.
“What you can do with LTE connectivity is really key,” Motorola’s Boutell says. “For us it’s that ability to use streaming with the CommandCentral [emergency communications platform] to provide that closed loop for officers. It lets you see what's occurring with respect to whether you need to reinforce the officer on scene.” CommandCentral also lets multiple authorized viewers watch the video from the scene and determine the appropriate response.
Boutell adds that having LTE built into Moto’s V700 means agencies don’t need to supply connectivity by other means. “That’s a step forward for ease of use,” he says.
Utility didn’t have to build LTE into its EOS system; it came with the Android phone platform. With the company’s Polaris evidence management system, supervisors can start a live stream from an officer’s system in the field and share it with authorized viewers. Polaris also provides agencies the ability to immediately view an event after the recording has been uploaded to a CJIS-compliant cloud.
i-Pro does not currently offer cellular connectivity on its body cameras. O’Connor says most agencies that have LTE connectivity in their body cameras are not using it for streaming video from scenes. “It’s being used for priority offload of recordings and device management,” he says. O’Connor adds that i-Pro is discussing adding LTE connectivity and maybe even 5G to its products.
BWC4000 users can use WiFi connectivity such as a mobile router, campuswide system, or municipal broadband for transferring data or even streaming video from a scene. “Under those conditions live streaming is very practical,” O’Connor says.
5G and Police
The next level of cellular connectivity that law enforcement agencies are now discussing with their body camera providers is 5G. But experts say adding 5G to body cameras is not as simple as it sounds. And there may be some real drawbacks for law enforcement users.
Motorola’s Boutell says police agencies need to know the pluses and minuses of 5G. He recommends that, for now, customers are better off sticking with LTE. He explains, “LTE meets the needs and provides a balance of cost, complexity, and energy usage.”
As implied in Boutell’s statement, some of the drawbacks of 5G for body cameras is cost and battery drain. “Nothing better comes for free,” he says. “All of these improvements come with technical consequences. We tend not to adopt technologies for marketing reasons, but for the needs of law enforcement. It’s more important that we deliver tools to help them make communities safer rather than follow trends in technology.”
Utility can claim to be the first body camera maker to offer 5G connectivity. It is currently shipping to its customers Android smartphones that have 5G capability. The question is whether the company’s law enforcement customers have found a use for it. Harrison says most of Utility’s customers use the Rocket in-car router for data transmission and not commercial cellular networks.
Batteries and Future TechBatteries will be the key to any future developments in body camera technology. “I think that the future of body cameras is dependent on the evolution of batteries,” says Boutell. “I have been promised a better battery for the last 10 years. I’m waiting for the battery guys to invent me that magic battery.”
And Motorola’s Boutell agrees. “I don’t think improved technology will be the driver for departments to buy new cameras,” he says. “They’ll see the new shiny and go, ‘Oh, that’s interesting.’ But they won’t necessarily need it.”
All of the experts interviewed for this story say they don’t believe there is some killer app coming down the pike that will change everything. O’Connor stresses that the law enforcement market is different than the commercial market when it comes to marginal technological advances.
“Realistically, the service life of a body camera is in the five- to seven-year range,” O’Connor says. “That’s true, as long as it continues to meet the agency’s technology requirements and its video quality requirements.”
But body cameras don’t have to catch bullets, just evidence. And the ones you buy today will probably be just fine for years to come, especially now that you can replace the batteries.
All police gear has a tendency to need upgrades and replacements, it’s the nature of the business. Soft body armor is supposed to be replaced at about the five-year mark, for example.
So should a law enforcement agency that is thinking about buying cameras today worry about some marvelous new technology that will make their devices obsolete in the near future? Probably not.
Utility’s EOS is one of the industry leaders in automating body cameras. It’s Android smartphone architecture gives the system a tremendous amount of capability that Harrison says the company has not fully exploited. “Our system is built on a mobile computing device with a rich set of sensors that we can tap into to enable some very unique things for our users,” he explains.
“I don’t think officers want to have to think about the camera,” says i-Pro’s O’Connor. “The more automated we can make these systems, the better everything is going to go.”
One of the most difficult situations any officer or agency can have after any controversial use of force is not having video. That why one of the technologies officers want most in their cameras is automation. They have a lot of it now. But in the future they will want more. Speculation is that artificial intelligence may play a role in activating the camera in the near future.
Automation and AI
Better, more powerful batteries are key to adding new features like 5G and to making body cameras smaller and lighter. Truthfully, body cameras are not exactly huge and heavy now. But every little bit of size and weight reduction helps, and it’s an area where body cam buyers would like to see improvement. “It’s about total load, not just the weight of the camera,” Boutell says.
O’Connor also wants the “magic” battery. “I'm eagerly anticipating there's going to be some radical changes in battery technology, certainly within my lifetime, hopefully in the next couple of years. And we see hints of this from the electric vehicle industry and solid state batteries,” he says.