Body Cameras Want to Change Law Enforcement

We talk about cameras of all kinds around here, but, to my knowledge, it’s the first time we’ve covered one made by Taser. And, while it’s not a camera you’re likely to use to make beautiful photos, the Taser Axon (and others like it) could be one of the most important cameras in the world at this moment.

Smaller than the size of a deck of cards, the Taser Axon Body is a rather unassuming little black box meant to attach to a shirt and sit over the wearer’s heart. But, unlike other wearable cameras—like the seemingly ubiquitous GoPro—it’s specifically meant for use by law enforcement. And with the recent upheaval in Ferguson, MO dominating the headlines, it has never been more relevant.

When I talked to Taser VP of Strategic Communications, Steve Tuttle, the most commonly uttered word was “uncertainty,” and that’s what the company hopes to eschew with their technology. There has been a focus on accountability from the start. “We put a microchip in our taser weapons for police to record the time, the date and the duration. If anyone had questions about when it was used, you’d download the encrypted file to corroborate what the officer did,” says Tuttle.

The natural evolution was to create cameras which could actually record what was going on. “We first put a camera on a Taser in 2006,” says Tuttle. “When you turn the safety off, the device starts recording. We could show what happened and you could hear the officer’s verbal commands.”

Until that point, the weapon was still paramount for Taser in terms of efficacy for a police force, but, eventually, they spun the camera off into it own product. “We figured, let’s put them on a pair of Oakley sunglasses since a lot of the officers already wear them,” says Tuttle. “We approached them and designed our original camera called the flex. It gave you the true POV shot. If you look down the barrel of a gun, the camera does too.”

Taser Axon Flex Wearble Camera

Taser Axon Flex Wearble Camera

The first version worked, but uptake was relatively slow. “The first round was too big and too bulky,” Tuttle admits. “We did too much.” Three years later, they would introduce the Axon Flex, which was smaller and, thanks to magnetic mounts, much more versatile.

Now, however, it’s the Axon Body that’s making news. At $400, it’s 30% cheaper than the eye-glass equivalent and gives a chest-level POV with a 130-degree field of view. The footage is only 640 x 480 (non-HD), which is meant to maximize the amount of footage that can be stored on the device. Though, I would be very surprised if that didn’t get an upgrade in the next version.

The camera, thanks in part to its lower price, became popular with many departments across the country. Last summer there was a proposal for them to become part of an NYPD trial program after the Stop and Frisk initiative caused a fair bit of controversy.

In many ways, the Axon Body acts a lot like a typical consumer-grade action camera. But, Taser has tried to address some of the main issues that prevent more popular models from being adopted by law enforcement. One of the big issues is battery life and Taser claims 12 hours of stand-by time for their camera. If you’ve ever used many of the popular action cameras, you know that kind of longevity is often unrealistic.

The Axon is constantly filming, but it only keeps a 30-second buffer that keeps rolling over. Once you press the record button, it saves the previous 30-seconds of video and starts recording audio. “Normally, we rely on videos taken by citizens with their phones, but it’s unclear when they started recording,” says Tuttle. “It takes time to pull that recording device out of a pocket and you lose context that can be crucial.”

The uploading process is also specific to the law enforcement community. When you plug the camera into the charger, video is automatically uploaded to a secure cloud server powered by AWS. It uses unique hashes for each frame to identify if a video is being uploaded in its complete form to try and avoid editing or tampering. Internal affairs offices can even add tags to the videos so the system knows how to handle them down the road. Pieces of the video can be redacted or cut, but the file makes it very clear what has been changed.

As the footage is recorded, it’s stored in a proprietary format that Taser claims is secure. It should only be watchable once it has been uploaded through the service. That way, if the camera is stolen, it doesn’t take all of that personal footage with it.

What’s interesting is that this camera, and others like it, are just coming into the spotlight now, but Taser claims that their sales have been “skyrocketing” for the past six months.

The next step in the evolution is trying to determine how effective the cameras really are. A famous case of implementation is the Rialto, California police department. Their usage showed that the police officers used force 60% less often and complaints about officers shrank by 88%. The percentages are impressive, but it’s important to take the real numbers into consideration. The original number of complaints was just 24 (dropping to three during the camera period). It’s an extremely small sample size, but it demonstrates, what Taser and some law enforcement officials hope will become a trend.

Part of the efficacy is also dependent upon the officers being able to use the cameras correctly. Operating the Axon couldn’t be simpler—it’s only one button—but it’s on the officer to activate the camera whenever they’re interacting with a civilian. “The chiefs want one thing and the unions want something different,” says Tuttle when I mention the prospect of an always-on camera recording an officer’s full shift. “We couldn’t have a reasonable expectation of privacy. How do you go to the bathroom? How do you eat?”

The ACLU has similar concerns, but for the civilians, not for the officers. They worry about things like police keeping videos of seemingly innocuous encounters for later prosecution or having the videos leaked, allowing people’s privacy to be compromised.

VieVu Police Body Camera

VieVu Police Body Camera

It’s clear, though, that this segment of the market will continue to grow, even more so now, with this much public unrest. There are already plenty of other products on the market that aim to achieve similar purposes. Companies like VieVu, Bodycam, and Wolfcom are just some of the other makers trying to get in the door to the precinct.

Body-worn cameras also seem to be picking up some steam on the consumer side as well. Companies like LifeLogger, Memoto, and Autographer made noticeable showings at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, but adoption on that side is still relatively small.

Then, of course, there’s Google Glass, which seems to draw the most direct comparison. And while Google’s glass tech might seem a fit, it’s currently not configured for the rigors of law enforcement usage. “You can’t get the battery life you need and it won’t survive a fight,” says Tuttle.

Part of the focus on the upheaval in Ferguson has involved the relationship between officers and journalists. The Axon and other cameras like it are readily available to the public, so widespread adoption could, in theory, blur the line even more between citizens and journalist. And just due to the nature of the device, body camera footage can seem more reliable than the typical smartphone videos we’re used to seeing.

Will it eventually become standard issue for all law enforcement? Will it catch on as a consumer trend to record everything that happens during your life? We’ll have to wait and find out. Right now, however, Taser stock is surging and police departments around the country seem eager to try a camera program themselves.