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Body cameras: Get a clear picture

Body cameras: Get a clear picture 

Unlike mobile phone videos uploaded to social media, which often do not tell the whole story, police body cameras are intended to record the entire event as it unfolds in front of the officer. Most agencies using them require officers to record every interaction with the public. Body cameras can provide helpful evidence and protect police from unfounded accusations. If an officer steps over the line, that will be recorded as well.

There are dozens of body cameras on the market. Some are only clip-on cameras with microSD cards. Others, such as products from Taser, VIEVU, and WatchGuard Video, are specifically designed for law enforcement. Leading product have some common features, but also glaring differences.

Technical specifications such as battery life, storage capacity, focal length, and video definition are familiar to any camera owner. Obviously police body cameras need to withstand a 12-hour shift. But design decisions such as the field of view, which is determined by sensor size and focal length, have the potential to impact the evidentiary value of the recorded video.

Anyone who has watched a GoPro video has witnessed distortion due to the wide angle lens. Straight edges appear curved, and distances can be difficult to judge. Taser’s Axon 2 camera has a 142 degree field of view. WatchGuard Vista’s field of view is 130 degrees. In sharp contrast, VIEVU cameras use a custom lens to achieve a 95 degree field of view. For comparison, the GoPro’s field of view is 170 degrees and mobile phone cameras are approximately 70 degrees. For law enforcement purposes, wider is not necessarily better. The VIEVU camera should have less distortion, and may allow the viewer to more accurately perceive events as seen by the officer, while Taser and WatchGuard’s wider views may capture peripheral details.

A fundamental challenge common to all body cameras is that recording must be started and stopped at the right time. Privacy issues and data volumes make it impractical to record the entire shift. All leading vendors offer a pre-event recording feature. If enabled by the agency, the camera buffers video (usually 30 seconds) while in standby mode. When the officer activates the camera, the buffer is saved, resulting in pre-activation video.

The primary method to start and stop recording varies. The Taser camera requires the officer to double tap the front button to start recording, and hold it for 3 seconds to stop. The WatchGuard product also uses a button. VIEVU takes a different approach; approximately half of the camera’s front surface area is a textured siding switch.

In a stressful situation, an officer may forget, or not have time, to activate the body camera. Taser offers integration, when an officer takes the safety off their Taser electronic weapon a bluetooth signal can activate all Taser body cameras within range. The company also offers integration with in-car systems such as firearm racks. VIEVU has introduced a holster trigger; the act of drawing the gun from the holster activates recording.

WatchGuard takes a different approach. The camera can be configured to record the entire shift, but by default only uploads video for time periods during which the officer activated the camera. If required, an administrator can manually select a time period and retrieve the video.

Other product features reflect different design philosophies. VIEVU’s design emphasises simplicity. Even if the camera is turned completely off, sliding the switch will turn it on and activate recording. Taser’s product has a slightly more complicated user interface. The WatchGuard product includes a screen on top of the camera and functions that allow the officer to categorize an incident immediately after ending recording. All three products can be paired with the officer’s smart phone to allow viewing video and adding notes.

Choosing the right body camera is important. But an even more formidable challenge is managing the volume of video produced. WatchGuard video estimates that only 3 per cent of recorded events are viewed within 90 days. Even if it seems unnecessary at the time, it is essential that all video is available within the department’s retention timeframe.

At the end of their shift, officers usually place their body camera into an Ethernet-connected rack. Videos are automatically uploaded and batteries charged. WatchGuard offers automatic WiFi upload when integrated with their in-car system. Officers who need to take their camera home, or work in small departments, can connect their VIEVU camera directly to a PC using a proprietary cable. Other options are available to meet specific requirements.

On-site, cloud, and hybrid video storage solutions are available. Departments purchasing body cameras must take the time to fully understand their options. A cloud-based system might be the right choice for some departments, and can simplify sharing video securely. But monthly data storage costs must be considered. It is essential to clarify ownership of both the recordings and associated metadata, and how they will be transferred to the department in the event that cloud services are terminated.

Body cameras are on their way to becoming standard police equipment, and that’s a good thing for law enforcement and the public they serve. Canadian police forces need to understand the strengths and weaknesses of products on the market in order to get a clear picture.

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