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Wait–Do We Really Want Police Lapel Cameras?

A knee-jerk solution to police violence also creates big privacy problems.

Wait–Do We Really Want Police Lapel Cameras?
[Photo courtesy of Vievu]

Following the fatal shooting of Michael Brown and subsequent protests in Ferguson, Missouri, there have been increased calls for on-duty police officers to wear body-mounted cameras. Over 145,000 people have signed a whitehouse.gov petition in support of a proposed “Mike Brown Law,” requiring all police officers to wear a camera.

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But little has been written about the actual technology of how these cameras work and the broader implications of deploying them en masse. Police departments around the country may range in size from a few dozen to over 1,000 officers. With cameras generating upwards of a gigabyte of video recordings per officer per day, the data storage issue can quickly get out of hand. On top of that, civil liberties organizations have raised concerns about the lack of clear policy for how they should be deployed. Not to mention the potential privacy issues for people recorded during encounters with the cops.

Here are some things that will surprise you about the debate.

Who Can Record Whom?

Ever since the beating of Rodney King was caught on tape in 1991, police have been aware that their actions may be recorded and used against them. The advent of ubiquitous smartphones has only put a finer point on it. With everyone essentially carrying a video camera in their pocket, police either accepted that they may always be recorded or actively tried to stop bystanders from recording them.

“Because of video recordings a lot of Americans who have had largely positive interactions with the police are having their eyes opened about the kind of stuff that does unfortunately take place,” says ACLU senior policy analyst Jay Stanley.

“Having officers’ lies and misbehavior revealed through the world is often not through police body cameras but through bystander cameras. As a result, there’s been a trend of police officers demanding that bystanders stop photographing or recording and sometimes harassing or arresting people exercising their constitutional right to photograph government officials acting in public.”

In such an environment, it makes sense that police would want to have video backing up their own version of events (assuming they’re not outright lying).

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Rick Smith, the founder and CEO of Taser International, which makes the AXON line of body-mounted police cameras, says their surveys reveal upwards of 80% of officers wanted their own cameras. “In a lot of cases bystanders are only going to turn in the part of the footage that makes the officer look unreasonable, not the build-up that may be justification for why the officer took a certain action,” he says.

The Internet Of Things And Cops

One major issue is whether (and when) a cop can turn his camera system on and off. In one incident just this month, a New Orleans police officer turned her camera off just before shooting a man who had to be hospitalized.

Smith recounts another incident in which an officer’s camera turned off immediately prior to a female suspect having, he says, “her teeth knocked out.” Taser was called in to investigate if there was a failure in the camera. Because of logs on the devices, Taser was able to determine that the camera was intentionally shut off. The officer was subsequently removed from the force. In other words, the cameras worked–even when they were turned off, but not in the ideal way.

Taser believes the solution here is automation.

“We’re building a whole bunch of remote triggering capabilities,” says Smith. “For example when you turn a taser on, it would turn our AXON cameras on. The same could be done with other events, like turning on the lights and sirens of a police vehicle.”

Stanley believes that this approach is cause for optimism, but also cautions that technology alone cannot solve every potential pitfall.

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“I’m glad that Taser is working on this kind of thing and thinking along these lines,” says Stanley. “I’m not sure that the technology will be here for a while to make automatic triggers sufficient. There will inevitably be times when an officer should be recording an interaction but those triggers may not be present. But this kind of feature could help increase public confidence.”

A Highlight Reel Of The Worst Moments Of Your Life

“We at the ACLU have always frowned upon pervasive video surveillance of our public spaces. And this has the potential to be yet another vector of government video surveillance,” says Stanley.

Although the call for deploying cameras has come from civil liberties groups working to ensure police accountability, those same groups are also concerned with what could happen with all these recordings. After all, people often aren’t at their best when they’re interacting with the police.

“The use of these cameras has the potential to lead to real invasions of privacy,” says Stanley. “For example, a significant proportion of police calls are for domestic violence. Police often walk into people’s homes and catch them at some of the worst moments of their lives. We don’t want to see video of bad moments of people’s lives being circulated or going up on the Internet in situations where it has no public importance.”

Some of the policies Stanley and the ACLU are urging be adopted include: granting people who have been recorded access to that footage for as long as the government has it, not recording in homes without the permission of a resident, and requiring officers to notify individuals when they are recording.

“It’s vital that departments don’t just throw these cameras at officers and let them do with them as they will,” says Stanley.

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Is Law Enforcement The Future Of Wearable Tech?

We hear a lot how wearables are the future of tech. But it’s not often that we see a wearable device that actually has a clear demand for it. (Yes, I’m looking at you, smart watches.)

Surprisingly enough, Taser sees itself primarily as a software company. Whereas other police body camera companies are just that–camera companies–Taser’s emphasis is on building an integrated ecosystem.

Smith estimates that Taser has spent somewhere in the ballpark of $70 or 80 million developing the AXON line and Evidence.com, its complimentary remote storage system. More than three out of every four dollars spent has gone into software and communications technology as opposed to the cameras themselves.

“What we’re doing is applying some pretty well-known technologies–wearable, video, cloud syncing–but we’re doing it in a unique space,” Smith says. “We’re looking at how we can use the idea of this more connected world to attack violence as a social problem. When violence happens we want to have tools to make it less dangerous and we want to create more transparency with state actors.”

“This is important work and it’s not a place most tech companies have traditionally focused,” he adds. “Six years ago we were a weapon company. Today we are an integrated hardware-software company.”