After a white police officer last year killed a young black man in Ferguson, Missouri, triggering national protests about police brutality, body camera manufacturer Wolfcom started working on new live feed technology that would transmit body camera footage from the field to police headquarters. Within months, its sales soared by 400 percent.
“The benefits are where a commanding officer can not only login and see the behavior of an officer and see if they’re behaving professionally, but also an officer might be in tense situation and a commanding officer can view that situation, and send backup, for example,” said Peter Austin Onruang, founder of the California-based company.
Amid a growing national debate about excessive force and law enforcement transparency, body camera manufacturers are increasingly coming up with new technology aimed at tracking police officers’ interactions with the public and, of course, increasing their profits. Their latest body camera models seek to make it easier to record law enforcement by streamlining the camera activation process, protecting the identities of witnesses in sensitive cases and sharing video evidence, among other features. But civil rights activists argue that despite the technological gains, there are still incentives for police officers to turn off the cameras.
Civil rights groups have increasingly argued for the widespread use of body cameras following the fatal August 2014 shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, in Ferguson, Missouri. The white officer who shot Brown was not wearing a body camera during the shooting. After a grand jury relied on his testimony instead of supplementing it with potential video footage from the scene, he was not indicted.
Since that fatal encounter, body cameras have played an important role in other police-civilian shootings. The University of Cincinnati police officer charged in the death of motorist Samuel DuBose was wearing a body camera at the time of the shooting in July, and key portions of the shooting were captured on video.
The shootings were closely watched in Washington, D.C., and the U.S. Department of Justice announced in May a program that would provide $20 million in funding for dozens of police departments nationally to institute body camera programs.
The attention has created a rich marketplace for body camera companies. As of 2013, there were more than 12,000 local police departments in the U.S., and federal funding requires police forces to dig deep in their pockets to help pay for body cameras. The Denver Police Department, for example, has said it wanted to pay law enforcement manufactorer Taser $6.1 million over five years to outfit the force. Taser's Axon body cameras cost between about $399 and $599 each.
Can The Cameras Record Everything?
Body camera manufacturers in recent months have sought to create new features to turn cameras on at the right time to capture law enforcement interactions. In older models, many don’t stay running so as to preserve battery life, so companies have tried to streamline the activation process and make it easier so officers have more incentive to do so.
Taser recently introduced Bluetooth technology that allows body cameras to automatically turn on in specific situations, such as when an officer draws one of Taser’s stun guns or turns on a siren or police lights, which would activate all body cameras on officers within 30 feet.
“When an officer drives up on a scene and jumps out of car and needs to get out, he doesn’t want to be fumbling to turn it on,” said Steve Tuttle, spokesman and co-founder of the Scottsdale, Arizona body camera manufacturer known for its eponymous stun gun product that many in law enforcement are armed with. “And then if it gets called into question, they’ll say ‘oh, he didn’t turn it on on purpose.'”
As soon as an officer dons a Taser body camera, it immedietely starts taking video, but will delete everything but the most previous 30 seconds throughout the day, Tuttle said. That is, until an officer hits a button on his camera, which then begins recording both video and sound and also stores the 30 seconds of video before the button is pushed.
Some body camera companies are also introducing technology that allows them to more easily take out, or redact, certain images from a body camera video. There are occasions where people caught on a body camera need to have their identities concealed, such as domestic abuse calls involving children and meetings with confidential informants and rape victims.
Redacting, which has typically been time consuming, requires going into each frame and blocking out images that needs to be redacted. Taser introduced a program in September to make the process faster with a three-step procedure where a redactor plugs in when they want to start redacting, what they want to redact and how long they want to redact.
Editing and storing the videos must be very done carefully to maintain the legitimacy to be legally considered evidence. When body camera videos are used in a courtroom, they must be essentially the same as when it was recorded, said John Cusick, Panasonic’s product manager for their Arbitrator body camera.
“Basically, we fingerprint that video so that if it were ever tampered with we could detect that,” Cusick said. “All the way through court proceedings we need to know where it’s been, who’s viewed it, who’s looked at it.”
Digital Ally, a Lenexa, Kansas-based body camera manufacturer, has also been developing similar technology to recognize a face and block it out throughout the video continuously.
“We’ve done it in phases over the years,” said Mark Gordon, technical services manager for Digital Ally. “But were getting into the more technical fun part where we can now create algorithms to match a human’s face.”
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Gordon said his company introduced automatic triggering years ago, which activates body cameras whenever an officer flips the siren switch. The company can also make it so that a body camera will be activated during a vehicle collision.
But not all companies are convinced that automatic triggering will work. Cusick, of Panasonic, was skeptical about the automated process. Panasonic's body camera has an on switch that Cusick said is very easy to activate, but requires a more deliberate method to stop recording, making it harder to turn off accidentally.
“There are some technologies that are leaning toward auto triggering, but the challenge with that is those types of devices aren’t always dependable,” Cusick said. “If it’s based on an audible signal, you have to hope it’s picked up.”
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Some companies, including Digitial Ally and Wolfcom, are also developing technology that would transmit live body camera footage from the field to police headquarters. The upgrades are paying off. Taser has seen a 153 percent bump in sales this year compared to last. From the second quarter of 2014 to the second quarter this year, sales bookings doubled to $30.6 million, Tuttle said.
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Not all companies have decided to improve their body cameras because of the recent string of officer-related killings or because of reports linking body cameras to reduced confrontation, Cusick said. Panasonic started developing the second generation of their body camera about a year ago. Cusick said Panasonic simply wanted to create a lighter, more easily wearable camera for police.
"The reality of it is, 99 percent of officers day is spent not documenting incidents," Cusick said. "The need around this thing was not spawned by officer shootings."
Body Camera Best Practices?
While body camera companies are trying to improve their tech in one way or another, there will always be certain issues with body cameras that seemingly cannot be resolved, activists said. No matter how high-tech a body camera is or how clear the video is, it is hard to mimic exactly what the officer sees and how they see it, a fact that likely will keep the public increasingly dubious of fatal police-citizen encounters regardless of the circumstances. A study published in November 2014 found that people filed fewer complaints against police officers when those officers were wearing body cameras, as opposed to when they weren't wearing them.
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“Best practice suggests to turn it on at every point when you’re talking to a member of the public,” said Nancy La Vigne, director of the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute, a think tank in Washington, D.C. “What we learned in our research and conversation with folks in the field is that police forget to turn them on and sometimes forget to turn them off. It offers the possibility of intentional oversight."