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November 11, 2013
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the Office of Justice Programs' National Institute of Justice (NIJ) TechBeat
with the Office of Justice Programs' National Institute of Justice (NIJ)

The future of body-worn cameras for law enforcement

Proponents of body-worn cameras say they protect officers from false accusations, reduce agency liability and citizen complaints, and provide evidence for use in court

By Michele Coppola 
Tech Beat Magazine 

In recent years law enforcement agencies have been experimenting with and using body-worn video cameras. How future cameras can be improved to further officer safety and effectiveness was among the topics discussed at a technology institute sponsored by the Office of Justice Programs’ National Institute of Justice (NIJ).

Proponents of body-worn cameras say they protect officers from false accusations, reduce agency liability and citizen complaints, and provide evidence for use in court. Unlike vehicle-mounted cameras, the body-worn cameras travel with the officer when he steps away from the patrol car. They can be attached to a shirt pocket, helmet, glasses or badge, and can serve to augment in-car video systems or provide an option to the expensive in-car systems that some departments cannot afford.

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Capt. Wayne Hoss of the San Mateo Police Department says that while those arguments carry weight, the current technology has limitations. Why not go further and incorporate technology into body-worn cameras that could substantially increase officer safety? Hoss discussed the current state of body-worn cameras and a future vision for the technology at the NIJ 2013 Technology Institute for Law Enforcement.

San Mateo, with a population of approximately 98,000, sits about 20 miles south of San Francisco, near Silicon Valley, which is home to numerous established and start-up high-tech companies. The police department has 100 sworn officers. Hoss says the proximity to the technology enclave has served the police department well, affording it the opportunity to serve as a testing ground for new technologies, such as a WiFi network that provides officers in the field with wireless broadband access to law enforcement databases.

In the past three years, the police department has conducted five pilot tests of body-worn cameras, and decided not to use them, Hoss says, noting that the placement of the camera on the officer is extremely important.

“We have tested cameras and found that none of them are ready technology-wise for fulltime wearing by our police officers,” Hoss says. “The cameras were not seeing what we wanted them to see. The perspective the video is recording is not the perspective of where the officer is looking unless the camera is mounted on the officer’s head, so for officers with a helmet it works well.”

Vehicle camera systems have integrated automated license plate recognition technology. Future officer-worn cameras could also include it, Hoss says, as well as facial recognition software to scan the environment and notify the officer of stolen vehicles and wanted individuals. Eventually perhaps voice stress analysis software could also be incorporated into a body-worn camera system.

A current challenge is battery life.

“Current batteries will generally last enough for a shift but officers are doing limited technology with it, only recording video,” Hoss says. “My hope is that on future cameras, the lense could follow a suspect’s movements. The problem would be the battery mechanics; it would make the battery much larger than the officer would be comfortable wearing.”

Hoss says he has been discussing the vision for future camera capability with industry members.

“At the law enforcement technology institute, my recommendation for agencies was to be patient on body-worn cameras; the technology is emerging, so look at the technology in the next 18 to 24 months,” he says. “The folks in the market are trying to address the challenges I have brought up. If law enforcement expects these companies to adapt technology for us, we’re going to have to take the lead.”

In 2012, the NIJ Sensor, Surveillance, and Biometric Technologies Center of Excellence published a primer on the use of body-worn cameras by law enforcement. A Primer on Body-Worn Cameras for Law Enforcement provides an introduction to body-worn cameras and highlights issues and factors for agencies to consider regarding implementation. The report can be viewed at https://justnet.org/pdf/00-Body-Worn-Cameras-508.pdf.

For more information on possible future capabilities of body-worn cameras, contact Capt. Wayne Hoss at (650) 522-7682 or whoss@cityofsanmateo.org. For information on the NIJ Technology Institutes, contact NIJ Senior Law Enforcement Program Manager Mike O’Shea at (202) 305-7954 or michael.oshea@usdoj.gov.

About the author

TechBeat is the award-winning news-magazine of the National Law Enforcement and Corrections Technology Center (NLECTC) system. Our goal is to keep you up to date with technologies currently being developed by the NLECTC system, as well as other research and development efforts within the Federal Government and private industry. See more articles at https://www.justnet.org/InteractiveTechBeat/index.html. We welcome all questions, comments, and story ideas. Please contact NLECTC at 800-248-2742, or email to asknlectc@nlectc.org.



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