Batons and handcuffs move aside. The newest addition to the police uniform is high tech, and doesn’t require that you lift a finger.
High profile altercations between police and civilians have increased demand for officers to wear body cameras while on duty. And that demand has inspired tech companies to produce cameras with more features.
The KERA radio story.
In Allen, TX, workers at WatchGuard Video piece together body cameras called VISTA . These HD cameras are about the size of a credit card and a about an inch thick. Starting at $800, they’re rugged — made with rubber and military-grade resin.
“VISTA’s selling rate has gone up over 4 times, about 400% the rate of our prior camera,” says Jason Stuczynski, VP of sales at WatchGuard.
“The incidents you see in the news fuel this, communities are demanding a level of accountability that cameras bring.”
[Check out KERA’s story Could Police Body Cameras Have Made A Differnece In McKinney?]
Officers lock the VISTA camera into position on a chest plate, and press a button on the front to turn it on. There’s also a toggle button on the side of the camera, to label the incident – say it’s a shooting, a DUI, or just a routine stop. Stuczynski says this categorizing is important because it helps locate the footage later on, for review, or a trial.
WatchGuard is hoping another, more controversial feature gets police to buy in. It’s an option to essentially record nonstop, even when an officer hasn’t pressed the record button.
Automatic Recording Means Never Missing Any Action
“What VISTA can do is capture an event that I may have missed during our shift of a prior shift,” Stuczynski says.
How can you recover a fight or an arrest you didn’t record? Well, this camera is continually buffering video. That means if the camera is on, it’s recording, albeit without sound.
“I understand the need that people want to make sure that you don’t have a situation where the officer doesn’t turn on the camera when it should have been, but that’s really a matter of training and integrity.”
Dees says if you have police officers who regularly aren’t turning on their cameras, the solution isn’t to watch them every second of their shifts, it’s to hire new officers.
WatchGuard is far from the only company designing automatic recording systems.
A company called Utility makes it possible to set all body cameras within a certain distance to turn on as soon as one officer presses record. And a popular camera by TASER – which is the camera Dallas Police officers will soon wear — turns on as soon as soon as a Taser weapon is used.
Others start recording after officers open the car door.
Why Police Departments Are Investing In Body Cameras
Even though former officer Tim Dees thinks some of this technology crosses a privacy line, he points out every police chief he knows wants to deploy cameras.
Why? Because everyone wants the truth. Everyone wants to cheer on the good guy and punish the bad guy.
The problem, says Howard Wasserman, is that the good guy and bad guy is open to interpretation.
Wasserman is a professor at FIU College of Law in Miami.
“You show the exact same video to 100 people and people are going to have different responses to that video,” he says. “A lot of that response depend on their gender, race, age, life experience, political leanings. So the idea that there’s a good and bad guy doesn’t comport with reality.”
Still, departments across North Texas are betting the technology will help keep officers, and civilians, accountable. The Dallas Police Department will start deploying 200 Taser International cameras at the end of June, and expand to 1,000 by 2020. Fort Worth already has about 600 body cameras but wants all 800 patrol officers to have one.
As workers at WatchGuard pack VISTA cameras in bubble wrap, Stuczynski says body cams are here to stay. Just like officers pick up batons and handcuffs at the start of a shift, they’ll be grabbing these recorders as standard procedure.
The Battery Challenge
Controversy aside, the biggest design challenge for body cameras has been balancing features with battery life, says Stuczynski.
“We wanted this thing to have magic blasting out of it and beam wirelessly,” he jokes, “and at the end what we realized is if this doesn’t make it through the officers shift, it’s no good.”
And unlike a cell phone where you can get in the car and plug it in to charge, a body camera is part of your uniform.
“If you have to take it off through your shift,” Stuczynski says Murphy’s law comes into play. “That’s when something is going to happen.
So for now, VISTA can record nine hours of HD recording on a single charge, but it can’t upload video wirelessly. Stuczynski says that’s coming soon.