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What to consider when buying body worn cameras

Lawmakers in Virginia, Utah, Texas, California, Arizona, Illinois and other states are considering mandates for body worn cameras on officers. President Obama’s request to Congress for $263 million in grant funds to help local agencies purchase body worn video technology has yet to see any meaningful congressional action. Agencies in every state are scrambling to figure out what works for their needs and how to pay for cameras.

Does your agency have discretionary funds to equip every officer with a camera and the supporting back end software? Do you have solid supporting policies in place? What should a law enforcement agency ask when buying a body worn video system?

If your agency does not have a research and development position or division (that’s most of us!), look at some law enforcement agencies who do, such as LAPD, Las Vegas Metro, NYPD, Phoenix PD, or look abroad to the London Metropolitan Police—an agency with a very robust research arm. Look at the systems those agencies or any of the other IACP Major Cities or National Sheriffs Association Major Counties have evaluated and selected.

Most agencies look immediately at the price point to begin the search for a body worn video system. Price is important, but remember that you get what you pay for. Be sure that you are getting what you need. Finding a hole in system security or realizing six months after purchase that you’re running out of server space for storage isn’t a happy ending.

Ask each vendor:

  • What metadata does your system capture?
  • Will your future technology provide for automatic activation when a gun, electronic control device or other weapon is deployed?
  • Does your backend technology allow remote viewing (helpful for prosecution and defense agencies)?
  • Who else uses your technology? Will you provide peer contacts for references?
  • Does your system offer pre-event capture (a buffer)?
  • Do you offer mounting choices that work for all of our officers? Officers wearing a tactical vest may want an option that doesn’t mean moving the camera every time the officer puts the vest on and takes it off. A shoulder or eyeglass mount offers line of sight video capture.
  • Is your system suited for my climate? What works well in Florida sunshine might not have the weather resistance essential in snowy Colorado.
  • Give me examples of where your camera took a beating and kept on recording.
  • What is the battery life?
  • Can the battery be hot-swapped?
  • Can we choose recording quality options? (impacts file size)
  • What are the recording time options?
  • How do we show the court that no one had the ability to tamper with this video from the moment of capture to presentation in court?
  • How does your back end system help the clear and efficient workflow of sharing the video with a prosecutor, command staff, risk manager, defense attorney? Will we have to make copies on digital media and hand-carry or distribute by mail, or do you have a secure and easy software solution for secure sharing?
  • How long have you been at the body worn camera game?
  • Will you provide me with an iTunes or Amazon experience (does your system have a big "easy" button?)?
  • What tools do you have to help us meet public records requests (i.e. blurring or shadow tools)?
  • What expansion options are available?
  • What are you doing to enhance our future experience?

Chain of custody and audit is critical. If evidence does not favor the defense, defense attorneys attack the technology (remember the OJ Simpson trial defense?). The vendor’s system must have an unassailable security suite that ensures confidence in the chain of custody, security and integrity of the evidence.

If you’re considering a hybrid solution—buying a decent camera and managing your own back end video management and storage—ask your staff and your IT support tough questions: What was your last major IT project? Did it come in on time and on budget? How many bug fixes before it worked? How much down time? Is your IT department dependent on that "one guy"? If she or he left, can IT still support your system efficiently?

Have more questions than answers? There are resources. The Institute for the Prevention of In-Custody Deaths will hold the first national symposium bringing legal experts, policy planners, technical experts and users together to discuss body worn camera issues (including how to select a system for your agency).

For additional information on recent criminal procedure and public safety liability cases, subscribe to Xiphos, a monthly update newsletter service of Lexipol (www.Lexipol.com). Subscriptions are free for public safety personnel and public attorneys. Go to my Xiphos page and fill out the form.