Blue Line

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Video gets personal with body-worn cameras


September 2, 2014
By Tom Rataj

You wouldn’t have to crawl far out the proverbial limb to predict that most uniform police officers will soon have body-worn video-cameras (BWVC) as part of their standard equipment.

The documentary power of video, increasing public demand (obsession?) for greater accountability and transparency and the affordability of technology are all coming together to make it a growing reality for more and more officers.

As with other police video (in-car, public CCTV and interview), the evidence gathering and documentation ability of video cameras is virtually impossible to beat. They generally produce a very good quality and, more importantly, neutral record of events.

{Accountability and transparency}

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In the wake of numerous incidents of alleged or actual police misconduct and excessive use-of-force, BWVCs are a natural and increasingly affordable solution.

Many incidents are recorded by civilians using smartphones, with the videos quickly posted to YouTube or shared with the ever scandal-hungry news-media, creating huge public-relations challenges for all police agencies.

Unfortunately many videos fail to capture the point-of-view of the involved officers and also miss the events leading up to what actually gets recorded and publicized.

Since use-of-force always looks ugly to the public, regardless of any legal justifications officers may have had, BWVCs can serve a substantial role in documenting an entire incident from the physical perspective of the officer.

Numerous coroner’s inquests and other public and internal inquiries into police use-of-force incidents and police-caused deaths have repeatedly recommended that all front-line officers be equipped with BWVCs.

Some studies of pilot projects have found that BWVCs reduce officer use-of-force incidents by 60 per cent and citizen complaints by 88 per cent. It is suggested that officers probably use force far less often when they are wearing a camera and citizens probably behave better when they know that their behaviour is being recorded. The number of vexatious, malicious and strategic complaints against officers also quickly drop once cameras become commonplace.

When implementing this technology, agencies need to ensure that the public understands that the equipment will help create the accountability and transparency the public so often demands.

{Benefits}

Many police activities are dynamic and unfold rapidly. A lot happens in a very short period of time. Officers can only remember so much about the order of events, who said what and what they saw. Tunnel vision and the fight-or-flight effect can quickly influence their memory.

The BWVC creates a reliable record of the situation and, when reviewed, allows the officer to produce far more accurate and detailed notes and provide great evidence at judicial and other proceedings.

As an investigative tool, a BWVC also offers many benefits. An officer investigating domestic violence, for example, can easily obtain a fresh and spontaneous video statement from a victim or a witness immediately after an event.

Pilot projects have clearly demonstrated that BWVC evidence often prevents complaints from being filed against officers. It also helps in the early resolution of criminal cases because police can present far more credible evidence.

Agencies need to sell the benefits of the technology to officers when implementing these devices so they don’t just see the potential negative sides. As with in-car camera video, officers generally begin to see the benefits as a very useful tool to make their jobs easier in so many ways.

{Policy}

Establishing a solid but flexible policy about when to record is critical to the success of any implementation. Some agencies record every interaction between officers and civilians; most require officers to only record calls for service and other enforcement, investigative and arrest situations.

Recording every interaction may undermine community relations by preventing the informal relationships between officers and the public that are often very valuable.

There also needs to be some kind of policy directive about turning a recording off part way through a mandated event. Officers would need to explain why they shut off the camera or didn’t turn it on in the first place.

As with most other police video, BWVC policy should include guidelines and common-language wordings to inform civilians that the officer is video-recording their interaction.

Many agencies using BWVCs also randomly review the footage for compliance with agency policy and may also use it for training and administrative reviews.

{Technology}

The affordability of BWVCs have made them much more common. The price drop has been driven by the massive economies of scale created by the smartphone market. With more than one billion smartphones shipped last year, the cost of the main components – camera, microphone, battery and software – has plummeted.

Better-quality cameras that record at 720p or 1080p HD video typically run in the $800-$1,200 range, although cheaper units are available. Cameras are typically housed in a rugged, waterproof case roughly the size of a large pager. Video is recorded onto standard SDHC memory cards. Most come with some type of desktop software to view and enhance video.

Most units are designed to be mounted on an officer’s chest, where they provide a wide-angle view in front of the body. The drawback to this is that the camera can easily be obstructed by hands or equipment and may not show exactly what the officer is looking at.

Several units are designed to clip to glasses or a hat. These generally offer superior video because they show what the officer is looking at and are less likely to be obstructed. Mounts are less robust than most chest-mounted units and more prone to becoming dislodged during dynamic situations.

Chest mounted units include the Panasonic WV-TW310 Series wearable camera ($1,000), Reveal Media RS3-SX ($700), Taser AXON ($400), L3 Mobile Vision VIEVU. Wolfcom and other companies also offer units.

Head-mounted point-of-view units include Taser’s AXON-Flex ($600), Google Glass ($1,500) and a Wolfcom unit.

One of the major challenges of implementing BWVC systems is that they add weight and one more piece of hardware to the already crowded police uniform.

{Infrastructure}

The infrastructure needed to support cameras and all that video is often forgotten in discussions about BWVCs. Hardware, software, storage and disclosure systems can quickly add up to millions of dollars in extra costs.

Cameras need carrying cases, batteries and/or charging stations and a simple tamper-proof method for cataloguing and transferring video from the device to a storage system.

Once uploaded, the video needs to be securely stored, backed-up off-site and subject to access controls and simple investigative and disclosure processes to make it an efficient tool.

Most agencies choose to do the whole infrastructure part it in-house with off-the-shelf software licensed from the equipment vendor, although several vendors also provide cloud-based storage and management services for a per-device fee.

Recording retention periods need to be established, because if an agency saves everything, forever, the costs of storage will quickly grow, even with the extremely low cost per MB we see today. Retention policies should probably be based on the nature of the incident recorded, primarily categorized by evidentiary and non-evidentiary.

Disclosure of recordings for investigative, court and Freedom of Information Act needs also need to be addressed, as do the costs and process of producing the disclosure medium, usually a DVD.

{Public demand}

The body-worn video-camera era is still in its infancy but will grow very quickly thanks to a combination of public demand for greater accountability and transparency and rapidly dropping hardware prices.

Agencies and officers need to embrace this technology and make it work for them. Policing techniques and processes will need to change but many of the changes are probably long overdue.


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