Patrol car video recording systems have become a mainstay of law enforcement, but the technology comes with some major shortcomings. The biggest limitation is having the camera mounted to the car, rather than the officer. When the officer moves away from the vehicle, the audio may often be lost. The video may not cover where the officer moves, and if it does, it becomes distant. Perhaps 90% of the officer-suspect interaction is missed once the suspect goes off camera or the officer departs to a scene where the camera is no longer targeted at.
To solve this problem, Taser International has developed a wearable tactical computer called the TASER™ AXON™.
Short for Autonomous eXtended On-Officer Network, the AXON combines on-officer audio / visual recording unit with a wearable camera / microphone. This system has the ability to be integrated into the officer’s portable radio system so all radio transmissions are captured.
“The AXON sits where most officers put their handheld microphones—on their shoulders or chest,” said Steve Tuttle, TASER’s VP of communications. “The video camera, microphone and radio speaker are all built into a small earpiece. When something happens that requires recording, the officer simply taps a wearable button on his uniform. The unit immediately goes back a minute—because it is recording at all times at low resolution—stores that audio / video, then begins recording in real time in high resolution, as well as beginning the audio recording. The biggest benefit of the AXON is that it shows us what happened from the officer’s point of view at all times, and it shows this a minute earlier than the point at which he or she decided that recording was necessary.
“Basically, the TASER AXON protects the truth by capturing and then displayed what actually transpired at all times and from the officer’s perspective.” The Technology
The AXON is a small Linux-based tactical computer that is about the size of a deck of cards. Despite its diminutive stature, the AXON comes with a dual-core processor and an onboard video compression chip. This ensures fast processing of the audio / video being captured. The unit even comes with a 2.8-inch color LCD display; both for showing operating controls and playing back recordings. “It comes with a built-in 8 GB Flash memory and a slot for a MiniSD card,” Tuttle said. “Basically, you can record up to 10 hours of video on this unit, depending on what resolution you choose.” At best quality, the AXON records in DVD-comparable resolution.
The AXON system’s playback feature allows users to go through their video record to ensure accurate reports. They can even set “markers” on the footage so they can jump to the sections they need to refer to back at the station. For states where audio recording is forbidden, the AXON can be set to record video only. It can also be set to audio only. The unit also has a privacy feature that officers can trigger when they want to keep their conversations off the record or during times inappropriate to record, such as bathroom breaks or during personal calls.
To ensure that prosecutors can certify this video to be raw and not tampered with, the AXON provides secure downloads back at HQ when placed into its docking station, connected to the departmental LAN. It does this by tagging the footage with “hashing.” This is a technique that makes it impossible to edit the video without proof of tampering being detectable in the hash data stream.
Here are a few other key points about the AXON. The camera-equipped earpiece can be handheld to look around corners, with the officer watching the video on the AXON’s LCD display. This can provide a degree of protection when entering unknown areas where armed suspects could be hiding.
The AXON can be used with either visible light color or infrared (IR) earpiece cameras. IR makes it possible to shoot video in pitch black conditions. The earpiece and computer are waterproof and ruggedized. Finally, the AXON’s battery is rechargeable, with enough juice to last an entire shift.
“AXON isn’t there to be Big Brother,” Tuttle said. “It’s there to protect the officer, community members, and thus protect the truth. We learned just how invaluable the video issues were to protecting the officers with our 27,000 TASER CAM systems in use throughout law enforcement today. It’s proven itself hands down, but our system only works when it’s armed and aimed at a suspect. However, we too may be missing out on other opportunities.
“Certainly, allegations made by suspects could come just during police presence or when using other types of force, so it’s only natural that the next generation of protecting the truth would be something that is accessible during an entire shift and from the officer’s perspective.”
The facts back this up, he said. “The latest statistics indicate that police officers only use force at a rate of about 3.5 times per 100,000 calls for service. This means force is not used in over 99.9 percent of their citizen contacts. By far, the majority of use-of-force incidents involve empty-hand control techniques. The dashboard cameras and TASER CAM systems could miss this action in most cases.”
The TASER AXON is due to hit the market in the first quarter of 2009, with Tuttle estimating per-unit costs coming in at just under $1,000. Of course, for a 100-officer department, adding AXON systems to the arsenal will come in close to $100,000. This begs the obvious question, “Is the AXON worth the expense?”
Until the unit has been proven in the field, it is hard to say one way or another. But consider this: If the AXON does perform as promised, then this kind of video will likely become as expected by judges and prosecutors as patrol car video is today. After all, being able to see what an officer saw and said during an incident is the gold standard as far as the justice system is concerned. Hence, in those instances where departments can’t produce such point-of-view video, hard questions will be asked by those in power, and cases that otherwise would be slam-dunks might end up thrown out of court.
James Careless is a freelance writer who specializes in first responder communications issues. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.