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Implementing In-Car Camera Systems for Front-Line Policing

Written by Brad Brewer

Technology in policing is changing faster than most of us can keep up with. Most senior front-line officers can remember a time when a single radio was mounted in the police vehicle along with a pad of paper and a map book. Today, we have young officers who have never policed without technology. They have never been in a patrol car without a laptop delivering on demand, real-time, critical information in seconds.

With all this technology, few officers would argue that no single technology has changed front-line policing more than mobile in-car video. Even the U.S. Supreme Court seems to agree, referring to in-car video as the “silent witness.” In Scott v. Harris (2007), the argument was that Scott unreasonably used deadly force (PIT maneuver) to seize Harris. The 11th Circuit agreed. A review of the in-car camera video convinced the Supreme Court to reverse the 11th Circuit’s decision and make summary judgment for Scott, a clear pro-police, pro-mobile video decision.

What started primarily as a tool to assist in DUI investigations has rapidly begun to provide other invaluable information and evidence to support officers who were perhaps skeptical of having a video camera working along side them every shift.

In-car video intended for evidence in court has been influential in a majority of convictions, assisted in providing real-life training videos for police academies, quickly resolved citizen complaints, and basically confirmed how professional front-line officers conduct themselves, regardless of what the media portrays. The International Association Chiefs of Police (IACP) studies show that 93% of the time a complaint is filed against police and there is video evidence available, the officer is exonerated.

In-car video is widely viewed as “a voice that speaks for officers when they can’t speak for themselves.” One example of this was when an officer was responding to a call with full lights and siren activated. Upon entering an intersection on a green light, the officer got T-boned by another driver. Numerous so-called “unbiased” civilian witnesses gave sworn statements that the officer went through a red light. Unbeknownst to them and the other driver, a second responding officer was just behind the officer involved in the accident.

This second officer fortunately had in-car video, and the video confirmed what the officer said. The light was in fact green. The officer was exonerated, and the other driver’s civil suit was dropped primarily due to the irrefutable and impartial video evidence. Consider this incident and the potential liability along with lawsuit payouts when someone challenges spending the money for in-car video.

When planning to purchase in-car video, agencies need to consider if the equipment selected meets their needs both now and into the future. Integration with existing mobile computing software, AVL/GPS systems and mapping applications should also be a factor. Benefit to the community also plays a role when trying to secure funding. A 2004 (IACP) study of 900 citizens from 18 states showed that 94% supported the use of in-car video, as long as they were told they were being recorded. Community support is important, and don’t underestimate its influence on politicians or police board / commission members.

In-car video is made up of several components: a front-facing camera, a wireless microphone worn by the officer, a control panel / monitor sometimes on the same screen, and a recording device. Some agencies even add a second camera for prisoner transport in rear seat area. When choosing a hardware and software system, consider proven, commercial off the shelf (COTS) as apposed to making up your own configuration.

Remember that things like overhead consoles having protruding corners may injure officers in side-impact or roll-over incidents. Purchasing legacy technology for bargain prices can lead to poor support or obsolete service and no warranty.

The single most important part of any system should be quality of the video and the audio. If it is distorted or difficult to understand, no court is going to accept it as evidence. The original systems available had the option of analog VHS, SVHS, or 8mm tape, but those are almost legacy systems replaced by digital storage systems like CD, DVD, and hard drives (HDD).

Today, the recognized standard is essentially digital MPEG4 compressed and stored on an internal (in vehicle) tamper-proof HDD. These newer systems allow for complete continuity following the “chain of evidence” for solid court presentations. Best practices suggest an in-car camera system that doesn’t allow the officer to touch the video after it is recorded.

The video would be transferred wirelessly through an encrypted data network like Wi-Fi hotspots at the station when the officer is finished with his shift. Once the video is sent from the vehicle HDD to the main video server in the station, only a specially designated technician with advanced training has the clearance to actually manipulate the data for court.

To ensure integrity every time the data is touched, there is an audit trail that can be produced in court if required. This system provides the least likelihood of court challenges and the greatest likelihood of court acceptance, thus leading to higher conviction rates.

Any agency considering the installation of in-car video needs to follow some basic rules. First, make sure you have support in order to obtain the required funding for a complete solution. Second, look around at what others in law enforcement are doing. Don’t reinvent the wheel; just improve it a little. Third, consider a COTS product as apposed to a homemade system fraught with potential issues. Fourth, make sure adequate time and budgeting is allocated for training. There is nothing worse than deploying technology without proper training and then finding out every patrol vehicle has broken equipment because no one knew how to use it. This includes the development of departmental policies and procedures. Fifth, make sure adequate video storage is allocated. Video, even in compressed MPEG4, takes up lots of room when you run 24/7/365.

In-car camera systems are complex. The IACP Technology Technical Assistance Program is an excellent resource for agencies to draw from. Through grants from the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS), and the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), the IACP has conducted numerous studies on the topic of in-car cameras.

It has also created industry standards for things like format, compression, transfer, storage and minimum performance specifications for digital in-car camera systems. It is these IACP standards that most vendors and law enforcement agencies use as the benchmark when designing and selecting their in-car video systems.

Brad Brewer is a sergeant with the Vancouver Police Department. He can be reached at brad.brewer@vpd.ca.

Published in Law and Order, Jun 2009

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