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Stealth Mode? Built-In Monitor? Not All Body Cameras Are Created Equal

Police body cameras are seen on a mannequin at an exhibit booth by manufacturer Wolfcom at the International Association of Chiefs of Police conference in Chicago, on Oct. 26.
Jim Young
Police body cameras are seen on a mannequin at an exhibit booth by manufacturer Wolfcom at the International Association of Chiefs of Police conference in Chicago, on Oct. 26.

Amid the recent pressure on police to wear body cameras, one thing is often overlooked: Not all cameras are created equal. In fact, cameras vary a lot — and the variations — some contentious — can have a profound effect on how the cameras are used and who benefits from them.

Take the buffer function. Most cameras buffer — they save video of what happens just before an officer presses record.

Taser is a leading company in the body camera business. Its buffer function doesn't include sound.

Steve Tuttle, a spokesman for the company, says that's to avoid recording what an officer was saying right before an incident.

"It's video-only at that point. We want to protect the officers' privacy, because those private conversations could take the context out of what they were saying, especially a joke," Tuttle said recently during an expo in Chicago at the annual conference of the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

Police unions like this feature. But reformers say this means Taser cameras will miss sounds, such as a telling comment inside the squad car, that could explain why an officer decided to pull someone over.

Who Do The Cameras Serve?

Other cameras have features that are just as contentious. A company called Safety Vision makes a camera with a monitor on it.

"This makes it very easy for the officer to go back, in the field, after he made a recording, and actually review, recollect everything that just happened, and that way his report's going to be accurate," said Mike Tennon, who was working at the company's booth at the expo in Chicago.

It may seem like a convenient feature, but it's actually part of a heated debate over whether officers should be able to view their videos before writing their incident reports. In New York City and California, reformers say officers should not be allowed to view their videos before writing reports, because they might tailor their reports to what the camera caught — and didn't catch.

And here's another basic question: Should a camera show that it's on? Should there always be a blinking red light? On the Safety Vision camera, it's an option: "We can go to a complete stealth mode where there are no lights on at all," Tennon said.

Other companies take the opposite tack. Instead of "stealth mode," their cameras' screens are turned outward so civilians can't miss the fact that they're on camera. Those companies say this enhances a camera's deterrent effect, sort of like people seeing themselves on security monitors as they walk into a store.

Important For Ordinary Officers To See Value

Travis Reddy is CEO of an Australian company called Strategic Systems Alliance. He says decisions about privacy are localized in the U.S., coming down to state laws and police department policies — which is why his company has made its cameras more programmable.

"We're here to enable the policies that need to be implemented, so give them the flexibility to go either way," Reddy said. "(That's the) great thing about software."

His company's cameras are essentially computers, running on the Android operating system. The thing about programmable cameras, though, is that they may end up doing a lot more than anyone expected. For instance, the Strategic Systems Alliance cameras can read license plates and faces.

"As I wear this and walk around, it's checking all the faces I walk past and all the vehicles I walk past and notifying me if any of those people are on my watch list," Reddy said, walking around the expo floor.

Reformers pushing for body cameras may not have anticipated full-time facial recognition. The way Reddy sees it, though, it's features like this that will get cops to want the cameras.

"We see it as important for the rank and file officer to see the value in it, other than just repeatedly being used against them in the court," Reddy said. "The technology has the ability to actually assist them to do their job and not just be a passive observer of what's occurred," Reddy said.

Making A Choice On Price — And Priorities

Police departments shopping for body cameras right now face a bewildering range of choices, with at least a couple dozen brands and configurations to choose from.

Purchase decisions are often based on brand or cost, as well as what kind of data management services the company offers. Outfitting a whole police force with cameras will quickly generate terabytes of video, and the storage and management of all that data can represent two-thirds of the cost of a camera program. Departments are looking for systems that reduce that cost and simplify the "back end" of a camera system.

What the departments may not realize, however, is that, depending on the features that come with their new cameras, their choice of system is also a decision about how the cameras will be used, and for what purpose.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.