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A New Point of View for Police

WITNESSES sometimes capture police interactions with amateur video, but these days it’s more likely that the video will come directly from police because most departments equip squad cars with cameras. Recognizing that these systems can’t help after the officer leaves the car, however, several departments are now testing wearable surveillance systems.

One such tool is the Axon system developed by Taser International. Departments testing the system include those in Cincinnati; San Diego and San Jose, California; and Fort Smith, Arkansas. It is an ear-mounted video camera that officers liken to a larger version of a Bluetooth headset.

Taser added cameras to its Taser electro-shock devices a few years ago, but Taser Chairman Tom Smith says the company separated the camera from the Taser and developed Axon because it is more helpful to have a camera that can capture video even when the Taser is not involved.

The cameras record audio and video and have a voice microphone that enables dual use in radio communication. They can also be attached to a helmet, headpiece, or glasses. Each unit is hard-wired to an Axon tactical computer, which is similar to a touchscreen smartphone, also carried by the officer. It receives the video and powers the camera.

On the connecting wire is a small “communications hub” the officer uses to control the camera. Video stored in the tactical computer can later be uploaded to a data center.

The cameras record at 30 frames per second, which is high-quality video. They operate in three modes: privacy mode, when nothing is being recorded; default buffering, which records 30 second loops but does not save the data; and event mode in which the device automatically saves whatever video is being recorded.

Smith says an officer might switch to event mode when interacting with the public. The devices can capture between eight and nine hours of continuous video.

The cameras have already made a difference. In an officer-involved shooting in Fort Smith, the video helped clear the officer of charges of wrongdoing, according to news reports, and the county prosecutor has been quoted as saying that the Axon units represent a “quantum leap” in investigative tools.

The camera’s unique perspective is of critical value, says Assistant Chief Robert Kanaski of the San Diego Police Department. “There are a lot of things that occur out there that it’s just the officers and somebody else’s word…. Now you’re seeing it directly from the perspective of the officer. You’re actually seeing the visual,” says Kanaski.

The cameras also capture the condition of a crime scene when police first arrive. “Those images are real important as we put that case together, because some things could get moved around as time goes along; people don’t recall what things were like when they first stepped through that door. That’s where these images come into great importance for us,” Kanaski says.

The pilot tests are not complete, but Taser has already received feedback. The San Jose Police Department, for example, reported computer glitches and other problems. In response, Taser has updated its software, switched to a smaller camera, and improved the batteries. The department’s pilot test was extended to assess the changes, says San Jose Sergeant John Boren.

“Obviously it was a brand new program and not ready for distribution to the general public by any means, initially,” says Boren. But with the improvements, “it’s getting very close to being ready for that now,” he says. He does cite additional changes officers would like to see, some of which are echoed by Kanaski, such as making the earpieces more comfortable.

San Jose’s police officers have been hit with allegations of excessive use of force in recent months, and Boren says that a system like Axon might help the department prove that such charges are unfounded. “You’re trying to show that you don’t have anything to hide. The video evidence speaks for itself. And it’s definitely helpful in addressing citizen concerns about use of force.

Boren says he would like to see the system function wirelessly, but Smith says the bandwidth is not available to capture the quality of video Axon cameras capture now.

The Taser devices would cost about $5,700 per officer for a three-year time period, and that includes the device and all of the backend infrastructure managed by Taser. Neither Kanaski nor Boren is sure whether his department will order the Axon equipment at the end of the pilot tests. But Boren says he sees value in this type of system and hopes that one will be purchased at some point.