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Never miss recording bodycam footage when you need it

A smart holster sensor can take this responsibility off your shoulders


Sponsored by Utility, Inc.

By Laura Neitzel for PoliceOne BrandFocus

The scene is repeated in countless movies and TV shows: Good guy with his pistol – unholstered and at the ready – cautiously peers around a corner, prepared to defend his life when the outlaw draws his gun. In real life, in today’s environment, it’s rarely so clear cut.

BodyWorn's Smart Holster Sensor activates recording immediately upon unholstering of the firearm.
BodyWorn's Smart Holster Sensor activates recording immediately upon unholstering of the firearm.

Is unholstering of firearms a use of force?

While there is no national consensus on whether unholstering a firearm is considered a use of force, many law enforcement agencies would agree that as a matter of practice, it’s an action that should be taken infrequently and only when the situation clearly warrants.

Because “unholstering a gun” can be interpreted as “brandishing a weapon,” understanding what transpired in the moments before and when a gun is unholstered can be critically important in defending an officer against excessive use of force allegations or in providing transparency around controversial situations.

For this reason, many departments are adopting policies that restrict the unholstering of firearms and define circumstances in which unholstering is justified.

“Some police agencies have a policy that anytime a weapon is deployed, that is a use of force and it should be documented as such, both to record that data for review purposes and for being able to know and capture those incidents where use of force is being applied or potentially applied,” said Jason Dombkowski, retired chief of police of West Lafayette, Indiana, and director of law enforcement relations for Utility, Inc.

The obligation to record

Some agency policies require officers to start bodycam recordings anytime their firearm is unholstered in the line of duty (except in situations like training and disarming at the end of a shift).

In Decatur, Georgia, there are two types of known situations where a police officer would remove his or her firearm, says Sgt. Dan Bellis of the Decatur Police Department.

“One is if we have a cause to believe that there is going be a need for use of a deadly force because of a threat of great bodily harm, injury or death to ourselves or another,” he said. “The other type of situation would be during a felony traffic stop or when entering a building that has been burglarized and we’re searching the interior of the building for suspects.”

While recording policies are advisable and relatively easy to comply with in situations where the officer reasonably expects that a use of force might be necessary, there are other situations where it may be completely unexpected.

When use of force is unexpected

“We are a community-oriented policing department, so we patrol on foot and engage in the public regularly,” said Bellis. “In these cases, there’s no reason to have the body-worn cameras activated. That being said, we don’t know when an unexpected event might happen.”

It’s exactly for these unexpected situations that BodyWorn by Utility developed the Smart Holster Sensor technology.

“Those are the times where officers are under stress and they’re trying to take care of business. They may be at an escalating situation or potentially needing to save somebody’s life, including their own,” said Dombkowski. “The Smart Holster automatically triggers bodycam recording, as opposed to the officer having to be responsible in the heat of the moment to activate a piece of technology.”

Be proactive about protection

Decatur PD was one of the first agencies to sign on with the Smart Holster Sensor, not in response to any negative incident, but out of its mission to equip its officers with technology that will help them stay safe and foster a positive relationship with the community. Having embraced in-vehicle cameras, body-worn cameras and community policing ahead of many of its peer agencies, department leadership quickly realized the benefit of equipping all their patrol officers with the BodyWorn Smart Holster Sensor.

“The thing to remember about police officers is that, even though we go through a lot of training, we’re people as well,” said Bellis. “In a critical situation, we’re not going to be focused on turning the camera on, because we’re going to be focused on our movements, the other person’s movements and assessing the situation, all within a split second. Not having to think about turning a camera on is more helpful. That’s one less thing to think about.”

How it works

About the size of a piece of chewing gum, the Smart Holster Sensor attaches externally to the holster. When the firearm is unholstered, the sensor automatically commands the BodyWorn camera system to start recording. It also can send an alert to dispatch and nearby officers if it is the policy of the agency.

Every recording is automatically saved to a CJIS-compliant cloud environment, ensuring a clear chain of custody. The footage is automatically tagged with metadata such as date, time, location and even how the recording was started – whether by the officer, by the patrol car or the holster sensor.

When supervisors and other interested parties review the footage on Utility’s AVaiLWEB platform accessible via any web browser, they can automatically see exactly when the firearm was unholstered, what transpired during the full duration while the gun was unholstered and when it was re-holstered.

Customized to department policy

The Smart Holster Sensor integrates with the BodyWorn camera, and the recording function can be customized to each department’s policy. For example, Decatur PD’s camera system is configured to activate every time an officer leaves the patrol vehicle or activates emergency equipment.

“Whenever we’re actually encountering a high-risk situation or even just a routine situation of taking a report from a victim, we’re always recording,” said Bellis. “In the event we’re not recording because we’re out in the community, should we have to unholster our firearm, we don’t have to worry about activating the bodycam ­– it’s already configured to work like we need it to.”

The ability to configure the system according to department policy and needs is particularly useful because police agency policies can vary widely and the public is quick to criticize any police action. In a rural agency, a police officer may be making a traffic stop, alone, late at night. It might be completely permissible and reasonable for that officer to unholster his or her firearm and approach the vehicle with the weapon behind their leg, unseen, says Dombkowski.

If department policy does not require bodycam recording when the firearm is unholstered, the holster can still be configured to record audio and capture metadata indicating exactly when and where the firearm was unholstered. It also features pre-event recording so, depending on department policy, it can capture up to two minutes with audio and video to document events leading up to the unholstering of the officer’s firearm.

Capturing the officer’s perspective, automatically

There have been national incidences where the officer gets criticized for not recording an event,” said Bellis. “I think that the biggest takeaway from this is that an officer under a stressful situation doesn’t have to think about turning the recording device on. That’s the whole advantage of it.”

There are a hundred different valid reasons why an officer in the heat of a situation may not have recorded the incident, says Bellis.

“But, all those cast aside, the one thing that we know is that we don’t have to worry about the argument that the officer purposely did not turn it on, because it’s going to turn on automatically,” he said.

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