Applications for Body Cameras Expand Well Beyond Law Enforcement
Increasing number of businesses, municipal services turning to the technology to monitor employee interactions
- By Geoff Baker
- Jul 07, 2020
Weeks of protests in the wake of the killing of George Floyd have placed renewed attention on police body-worn cameras, whose two largest U.S. manufacturers have a significant Seattle presence.
Axon and Motorola Solutions recently branched out to commercial sales even before Floyd’s filmed killing in Minneapolis. Cellphone footage from bystanders put the case in the spotlight, but recordings from police body cameras are expected to be introduced at trial.
Businesses and municipal services large and small — including fire departments, emergency medical technicians, private security firms, department stores and construction crews — have turned increasingly to body-worn devices from a plethora of manufacturers to monitor employees for training, safety and behavioral purposes.
“Frankly, we’ve been really surprised at the level of interest in a broad number of different industry marketplaces that were not on our radar before,’’ said Axon founder Rick Smith, whose 1,500 employees include 245 in a Seattle office that is the company’s second biggest beyond its Scottsdale, Arizona, headquarters.
The idea of body cameras as a nonlethal safety tool to monitor police and modify behavior — with the aim of reducing excessive force by officers and false complaints against them — is also what’s luring the business world.
Axon makes body cameras for the Seattle Police Department and the Minneapolis force, four of whom were charged in Floyd’s killing in May. Within the past six months, it has started selling cameras to larger companies for “industrial use” purposes, one of the bigger ones a pharmaceutical firm where devices are being worn on a trial basis by employees at drug-testing facilities.
“It turns out that any time there is any concern that somebody didn’t follow the right safety protocols, they have to scrap millions of dollars of medication,” Smith said. “But they reported back to us that by having people that are working key processes wear body cameras, they are able to go back and check and verify whether or not a process was followed. They’ve already saved millions of dollars in stuff they didn’t have to scrap.”
Others include a company doing “large truckloads of deliveries” to grocery stores, using cameras to record the physical transfer of goods to reduce theft and loss. “There are times when a client would call up and say, ‘Hey, we’re one pallet short of some produce’ or ‘This produce is bad.’ Well, now that they’ve got the video, they’re able to go back and look.”
While cameras like GoPro have made significant inroads among consumers — sky divers, mountain climbers, cyclists and other outdoor enthusiasts — Smith said his commercial clients want something different. The Axon Flex 2, Axon Body 2 and newer Body 3 cameras are less focused on color pixelation and cinematography than a GoPro, but better for evidence gathering given their 12-hour, full-police-shift battery life and delivery of accurate, non-erasable footage — even in low light — and crisp audio along with secure storage options.
The Body 3 offers livestreaming and can begin recording video automatically when a police weapon is drawn or emergency lights activated. It also offers remote map-tracking of the camera-wearer.
“The fact that we do this with police evidence is a strong industry endorsement around the reliability and security of our overall platform,” Smith said. “It appears to really be resonating in a lot of other industries.”
Motorola has made in-vehicle cameras for police since 2004 — becoming the national leader in that realm — before branching out to body camera sales in 2015. It began selling body cameras commercially in the United Kingdom last year and in the United States the first half of this year to customers in retail sales, the railway industry and emergency first responders.
The company’s Seattle office of about 150 employees is a headquarters for its “command center software” business — which includes tools for gathering and storing video evidence obtained from body cameras.
John Kedzierski, Motorola’s senior vice president of video evidence and analytics, said the recent protests and calls for increased body camera use by police “has absolutely made more customers interested” in the product. But Kedzierski said commercial interest had already been piqued, with demand surging once the coronavirus pandemic took hold.
“Unfortunately, with the COVID-19 pandemic, we continue to see cases where customers behave very inappropriately,” Kedzierski said. “You’ve probably read and heard about cases where people engage in coughing and spitting intentionally because they were dissatisfied with something. And so, we’re seeing more demand for cameras in those areas to de-escalate those situations and, if need be, to document them.”
Clients also use the footage to train new employees on real-life situations they may face. Or, to go over how an employee handled a situation to train them to attain better outcomes.
Motorola, like Axon, wouldn’t divulge the names of its U.S. clients because it doesn’t have permission. Motorola clients overseas include the Sainsbury’s department store chain — the U.K.’s second largest — where Kedzierski said employees at about 400 of 1,400 or so locations wear the company’s VT100 camera to record customer interactions.
“Front-line employees that are trying to enforce people wearing masks, or social distancing, inside the store can encounter a customer that doesn’t want to do that,” said Kedzierski, whose company also sells VT100 cameras to the British-based ASDA and Co-op supermarket chains. “And those situations can get escalated. That focus on employee safety has been a key driver in our discussions more than anything else.”
The VT100 is more lightweight than the V300 models Motorola sells to law enforcement and doesn’t have the company’s proprietary Record-After-the-Fact technology — which allows continuous footage to be retrieved from the police models even if the camera wasn’t turned on.
But the VT100 offers a standby mode where cameras can sit idle for months and then be turned on at the push of a button without recharging. Once on, the camera’s footage is livestreamed to a store’s control room video monitors while an audible or text alert automatically goes to security guard radios for quick response if needed.
Among U.S. businesses known to use body cameras include Walmart, which equips members of its InHome Delivery team with proprietary models. The program, launched last fall in Pittsburgh, Kansas City, Missouri, and Vero Beach, Florida, enables employees to gain access to private homes when owners are absent and place groceries directly inside refrigerators.
By turning on their cameras, the employees trigger a special locking mechanism on a home’s door allowing one-time access — with the owner able to monitor the transaction on a smartphone application. Walmart has since added pharmaceutical deliveries to the program, plans more services this summer and could expand to other cities later this year.
Last October, Massachusetts regulators required those making home deliveries of recreational marijuana to wear body cameras because they were prone to robberies and to ensure they weren’t leaving packages with small children.
Axon founder Smith views increased body camera usage as a natural outgrowth at a time seemingly everybody already films smartphone videos. Smith’s company used to be known as Taser and has sold nonlethal stun-gun weapons to police since the late-1990s and body cameras since 2015.
Two of Smith’s high school friends were shot dead in a 1991 road-rage incident in Scottsdale while he was away attending graduate school. The killings spurred a personal fascination with the subject of gun violence and his company’s core mission to explore nonlethal solutions to counter it.
And while Axon cameras filming Floyd’s death didn’t prevent it, he’s hopeful emerging technology — especially livestreaming — can lead to quicker interventions when lines get crossed. That technology is why Smith views Seattle as “our most important recruiting hub” for top talent, including the December hiring of former Amazon Alexa Vice President Jeff Kunins as the company’s new chief product officer.
Just like police, Smith expects commercial clients will grapple with privacy issues surrounding body cameras — including the limits of workplace surveillance, use of facial recognition technology and determining how footage will be compiled and who will have access to it. And Axon will have to address such concerns through tech.
“There are no easy answers,” Smith said. “We can’t go back to the 1950s where, of course, there was privacy and nobody was being recorded. That’s just not a world we can go back into.”
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