A Focus on Body-worn Cameras
Transparency improves public trust in police, provides fairer investigations
- By David O’Connor
- Sep 18, 2023
The use of body-worn cameras (BWCs) by law enforcement officers has gained significant attention and popularity. These small cameras, usually attached to an officer's uniform or equipment, record audio and video footage of interactions with the public. Body-worn cameras provide an unbiased account of interactions between law enforcement and civilians.
The footage captured can serve as valuable evidence, ensuring accountability for both parties involved. This transparency can improve public trust in the police and contribute to fairer investigations and legal proceedings. BWCs have also moved into certain security, events management and loss prevention scenarios requiring significant interaction with the public regarding quality control and oversight.
Lightweight with flexible mounting options. It is important to consider the weight and the form factor that allows a BWC to be worn comfortably and securely. Finding the perfect balance between function and ergonomics should be the goal of any well-designed BWC system. If the unit is too heavy, it will become a distraction.
If it is too light, it might not have a battery that lasts long enough, and it could be too fragile for field work. There are also different body types wearing distinct types of uniforms to be considered, even within the same department, for various times of the year based on climate. Look for BWCs that use an industry standard mounting system such as Klick Fast™ to easily mount/unmount the camera while still allowing for customization. This should allow for flexible placement that captures a useful recording from each wearer’s point of view, regardless of their height, uniform or equipment requirements.
Since we want to be able to see what's going on in front of the officer, a panoramic field of view may or may not fit the need. Make sure any BWC you choose can support either 16 x 9 (more panoramic) or 4 x 3 (more vertical) field of view based on the primary mission.
Durability and reliability. BWCs need to be able to withstand the rigors of everyday use. They should be made from durable materials, manage common types of shock or impact, and be able to withstand the elements with MIL-STD 810H military grade testing and an IP67 weather-resistant rating.
Far too often we’ve seen cases of a department investing in inferior technology only to discover that crucial video evidence is not there when it’s most needed. Some BWC manufacturers offer a lifetime warranty and will readily replace defective units.
However, if units are breaking frequently, they are potentially failing to capture critical incidents. Other manufacturers commit to replacing cameras outright after a defined service life. Replacement cameras likely will be the same model, using the same technology. Or a new model may be introduced with additional/different support requirements or user interface. If cameras are being scrapped just because the built-in battery capacity is reduced, why not choose a unit with a replaceable battery pack?
Plus, once officers have a known workflow with a piece of important equipment, we find they’re not very keen on changing the instinctual “muscle memory” they’ve developed over time with such important gear. Consistency within an agency (equipment and process) is an important means of achieving consistent, high-quality results.
Video quality. It is important to realize that not all BWCs are created equal when it comes to video quality for the mission at hand. We want to make sure the cameras can capture clear and detailed video of interactions between officers and the public, but video resolution by itself doesn’t tell the whole story. Overall video quality is the combined effect of lens, sensor resolution, sensor sensitivity, frame rate, bit rate, compression and other factors.
Compression algorithms, while they are standards based, can be unique to each manufacturer. H.264 is a tried-and-true standard for video, but H.265 can result in a more efficient use of space when used on fixed cameras where background information not important to the scene can be more compressed. For BWCs that are constantly moving, any potential compression gains in H.265 are largely lost. In addition, encoding video at H.265 takes more processing horsepower, which negatively impacts battery life. So, while H.265 is an excellent choice for security cameras and other specific use cases, it's not necessarily beneficial for BWCs.
Full HD video quality at 1080p or 720p may overwhelm existing network infrastructure that cannot support multiple officers uploading video to the cloud when footage needs to be made available quickly or before the next shift needs to use the cameras. Bitrate ultimately dictates the size of a video file, and the frame per second rate video rate directly impacts smooth motion capture. For example, it may be better to capture events with fast motion at lower resolution (720p), higher fps, and higher bitrate vs higher resolution (1080p) with lower fps and lower bitrate.
Detailed scenes with less motion may benefit from higher resolution with lower fps and bitrate helping control the resulting file size. For all these reasons, format flexibility is key. Make sure that any camera you choose supports a range of resolutions and bitrates that allows you to find the optimum balance of quality versus efficiency that works with your underlying infrastructure.
Capturing the best video quality under the widest range of conditions requires the sensor to perform well in low light environments while still delivering color information. However, when ambient light goes below a threshold, it is desirable for a BWC to switch over to monochrome black and white at the lowest light levels.
Audio quality. Audio can be just as important as video when it comes to understanding an event, so the quality of a BWC audio recording is crucial. The camera must capture clear and audible audio of the conversations that take place during interactions.
Because volumes can fluctuate wildly from loud to soft, the camera needs to be able to automatically compress and limit loud sounds from distorting the feed, while allowing reduced level audio to be clearly heard. Test to ensure any BWC under consideration can manage a wide dynamic range, i.e., peaks and valleys in audio levels, and that the pickup pattern is omnidirectional.
One differentiator among BWC systems is the way the total system manages and controls multiple audio feeds from different cameras and in-vehicle recording devices. Digital evidence management systems (DEMS) such as i-PRO’s UDE™ or CloUDE™ Powered by Genetec will automatically time-align all video and audio feeds.
Battery runtime. BWCs must be ready to record each critical moment or event throughout the duration of a shift. This makes access to reliable battery runtime paramount for success. Battery runtime is directly impacted by how the unit us used during a given shift, including the base configuration, persistent connectivity, features activated and ambient conditions.
Twelve-hours of operation is a useful target because it covers most shifts. If we think of a battery as a fuel tank, then it is logical to expect that fuel tank to support normal operations under normal conditions. Users should be able to record multiple incidents, bracketed by periods of being on standby.
Ambient temperature can have a significant impact since battery chemistry and physics reveal that most batteries last longer in warmer temperatures than cold. Look for clear data from a BWC manufacturer in the form of a chart showing battery runtime against features and temperature to know how the system will work in your environment. Since users should always have full confidence in BWC/battery readiness, it is imperative that a BWC is designed with a field swappable battery.
The camera and the battery should be sufficiently water resistant that regardless of external conditions, the battery and camera are never compromised during a battery swap. Finally, since any battery will eventually degrade with constant use, expect a useable service life of two to three years before the battery pack needs to be replaced. Actual usage and number of full charging cycles will impact this service life.
Video Storage capacity, management and integration. One of the most significant differentiators between BWC systems is in the way they store, manage, and integrate digital evidence with your existing systems. The video and audio recordings from BWCs contain sensitive data requiring strong privacy and security features to protect the evidence itself and users of the system.
Managing any significant amount of digital evidence is a complex and tedious job, unless the selected DEMS provides useful tools for organizing, classifying, accessing, and retaining videos consistently and easily. One powerful option is integrating the BWCs and DEMS with a Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD) and Record Management System (RMS). Many times, officers and resources assigned to a call for service are bound together in the CAD system as responding to an incident. If any of the attending officers are not 100% consistent in their administrative responsibilities after the event is finished, the result may be “unclassified” video that is not correctly associated to the event.
Another type of integration automates activation of BWC recording in response to specific events. For many departments, if a weapon is drawn from its holster, the BWC must immediately start recording. Officers must remain completely focused on protecting the public interest and themselves during such an event, so automated blue-tooth triggering of the BWC from the holster is a reliable way to ensure the camera is recording when a weapon is drawn.
Finally, all recording, tagging, access and authentication events need to be logged and tracked to establish a clear chain of custody with such potentially sensitive recordings which are, in fact, essential evidence in many cases. Detailed system logging and audit features are required to support the judicial process and enforce policies. Video and audio data must be encrypted at rest and in motion with FIPS and CJIS compliant methods.
This article originally appeared in the September / October 2023 issue of Security Today.