With Body-Worn Cameras Becoming Mandatory For Police, Buying The Right One Is Crucial

By James Careless

Across the United States, many jurisdictions are making body-worn cameras (BWCs) mandatory equipment for police officers. Currently Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, New Jersey, New Mexico, and South Carolina require police departments to record their interactions with the public using BWCs, with rollout schedules varying from state to state. (Other states are likely to follow suit.) These mandates are designed to improve police accountability and rebuild public trust, by ensuring that police-public interactions are documented and available for after-action review by superior officers, the judicial system, and the public.

In many instances, states are making these implementations less painful by providing grants to police departments to cover their purchases of BWCs. (Conditions vary by state, so affected police departments should check with their own state funding agencies for details.) Federal grants are also available through a range of Department of Justice (DOJ) programs, such as Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grants (JAG). DOJ’s Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) also offers a BWC Funding Toolkit link, which can be found here.

The fact that government is willing to underwrite the cost of deploying BWCs points to their perceived importance by legislators at all levels. They believe that recording videos of police-public interactions have become vital to maintaining the Rule of Law in American society – particularly the widespread acceptance of that Rule by the majority of Americans.

With so much riding on the deployment of BWCs, the specific makes and models that police departments purchase are of utmost importance to themselves, their governments, and the public in their jurisdictions. Whichever BWCs police choose to buy (with or without government grants) have to be reliable, durable, and consistent in their recording functions.

This is why police departments need to be rigorous in their review and selection of BWCs during the procurement process. Here are some key qualities to look out for.

Easy to live with

Today’s police officer is carrying and using more technology than ever before, while being confronted with evermore complex situations and human interactions. Since a BWC will add to this load, it is imperative that the device be easy to use, compact in size and weight, and reliable in all conditions. (Connectivity to the outside world using 4G/LTE and Wi-Fi wireless links, plus GPS-based geotagging to tell Dispatch where wearers are in real-time, are absolute must-haves.)

Worth considering: The best BWCs come with a ‘Covert’ operations mode that allows them run undetected by outside observers. Since the circumstances in which Covert mode is needed are likely to be dicey, officers must be able to activate it with a simple, physically-convenient motion.

Speaking of activation, the best BWCs can be automatically activated via Bluetooth whenever certain sensors are triggered, such as turning on a patrol car’s lightbar or removing a service weapon from its holster. This ensures that recordings are being captured when the officer’s attention is on other pressing matters.

Viewable, reliable video is a must

The popularity of the TV series “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” and its successors has led to the public expecting police videos to be broadcast quality and highly viewable at all times, despite the fact that actual police officers don’t work while being accompanied by network TV camera and lighting crews. This unreasonable expectation is known as “The CSI Effect”, and it dogs police departments to this day.

As a result, police departments need to be sure that the BWCs they select are capable of capturing viewable video as a matter of course, even if officers are working in low-light conditions in the deep of night. The camera’s perspective also has to be wide-angle to cover all of the action – say a 165° diagonal view from side to side – and provide ultra-sharp video. In the last category, nothing less than 1080p full HD resolution enhanced by HDR (High Dynamic Range) will do.                       

Because events can go awry before an officer can manually turn on their BWC, the device should have an automatic ‘Pre-Record Function’ that captures video up to 30 seconds before officer activation. What this means is that the BWC’s recorder is actually always running, storing the last 30 seconds of video it captures at all times until the unit is officially turned on. (Recording continually would require too much onboard storage.) This ensures that the entirety of police/public interactions are recorded from start to finish.

Power to spare

A BWC is of no use to anyone if its rechargeable battery dies during an officer’s shift. It also doesn’t help matters if the battery has to be removed and swapped when the unit is in operation. Believe it or not, there are some BWCs that are so finicky about how their batteries are replaced, that recordings can be corrupted or even lost if the procedure isn’t done properly. As if officers have time to worry about such things!

This is why the best BWCs come with built-in batteries that can be recharged by attaching small external ‘Power Boosters’ during the shift. Not only does this keep the BWC running at all times, but the booster units are small enough that an officer can carry a few with them to effectively ensure endless power.

Military toughness required

Police perform their duties in harsh environmental and handling conditions comparable to those faced by U.S. troops. As such, the BWCs that police choose should be built to the same rugged MIL-STD standards specified by the Pentagon to ensure consistent resistance to shocks, drops, and temperature extremes.

Be sure to demand BWCs that meet the MIL-STD 810G standard, which have been proven to survive multiple drops onto hard surfaces from a height of 4 feet, plus resistance to high/low temperatures, rain, sunlight, dust, and other hazards. Otherwise, your department might as well use cheap plastic consumer cameraphones in the field, and replace them every few days.

The bottom line                    

BWCs can reliably provide police departments with accurate documentation of what actually happened during police/public interactions, but only if the equipment is up to the task. (If not, a police department is better off not having BWCs at all, rather than facing public doubt in those instances where inferior BWCs failed to do their jobs.) In those states where BWCs are being mandated, buying nothing but the best BWCs is effectively becoming mandatory as well.