On-Body Video: Eye Witness or Big Brother?

Officer-worn video technology is coming of age, but will agencies and officers embrace it and use it properly?

In contemporary American law enforcement, whatever you do, you’re probably doing it on video. Just about every hand-held phone doubles as a video recorder. And anyone with an Internet connection can post video on YouTube and Facebook.

So it’s not unusual to see headlines that read, “Police Deny Using Excessive Force,” the day after an incident when the local TV news is showing a citizen’s video of a violent police arrest. This story can happen anywhere, in any town, to any agency.

It happened in the Phoenix suburb of Mesa, Ariz., in early June. However, this time there was a twist. This time, the police department responded to the media with a statement and a video of its own. The arresting officer wore an on-officer video camera.

Capturing the action from the point of view of the officer, the video showed a clearly aggressive suspect, who appeared to take a fighting stance, charge at the officer and throw a punch. Viewers of the evening news now had a better video to judge the officer’s actions. If not for that on-officer video, a tide of public outrage may have swelled against the officers of the Mesa PD. Instead, the story’s balance helped check public outrage.

The era of on-officer video has arrived. The technology is poised to help keep officers safer and more accountable on the job, while protecting law enforcement agencies from nuisance lawsuits.

Videos of officers in action are nothing new. The 1960s ushered in the era of police officers on the television news. Unrest in the Civil Rights-era south, and later in northern and western cities, left the public with images of police officers with raised nightsticks and water cannons. Since then, news videos have often been used to level criticism and even charges of excessive force against officers.

Video systems became widely available to capture real-time policing in the 1980s to document drunk driving. Agencies installed these early VCR-based analog “dash cam” systems in cruisers.

Though laughably primitive by today’s standards, analog dash cams gave the public a new perspective on police work. Unfortunately, they often missed the action when the officer moved out of the camera’s field of view. A physical confrontation between a suspect and an officer often moved out of frame for the finish.

Dash Cams Have Their Limits

Law enforcement administrators have long known that what happens out of the dash cam’s view can be more important than what the eye sees. The need to capture the entire incident, not just the part that happened in view of the in-car cameras, gave birth to body-worn video.

About 10 years ago, engineers at Scottsdale, Ariz.-based TASER International began looking for a way to enable officers to record videos outside of the car. According to Steve Tuttle, vice president of communications for TASER, the TASER training staff would often be frustrated by stationary videos that lost the critical action of a TASER deployment when it happened off camera. Tuttle says this was a “gee whiz” moment for the company.

TASER’s first solution was the TASER Cam — a small video camera that attached to the TASER X26. Releasing the safety activated the recording. The TASER Cam almost fixed the problem. Videos clearly showed the events leading up to the deployment, but they showed pavement when the TASER was lowered post deployment. TASER introduced its first Axon on-body system in 2009. Three years later, TASER brought out the head-mounted Axon Flex.

TASER is not unique in its vision of body-worn video for officers. VidMic was first to market with a body-worn system specifically designed for officers in the early 2000s, followed by Vievu. Panasonic, Digital Ally and others have entered the market since Axon’s introduction.

When considering body-worn video systems, departments need to look beyond the hardware. Video files need to be stored, tracked and managed to meet retention policies. Files need to be secured to meet strict rules of evidence. Videos need to be shared with prosecutors and defense attorneys during the discovery process.

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