Q&A: Is your body-worn camera footage really showing you the full story?
Building transparency and trust comes with getting all sides of the story
Sponsored by Blue Line Innovations
By Yoona Ha, PoliceOne BrandFocus Staff
Are you being watched? If you knew you were, would that make you think twice about how you would behave? Research suggests that the idea that someone is watching us, camera or not, can alter our behavior. The psychologist Robyn Dawes showed us in the ‘70s that knowing that there are other people watching (even a picture of watchful human eyes) is just enough to have a positive effect on how people make decisions.
It’s true that in the past couple of years, police leaders and those calling for more police accountability have turned to body-worn cameras (BWC) as a tool to improve transparency and build trust. In one report that surveyed the camera needs of police chiefs and sheriffs in major cities, 95 percent reported they had either implemented or planned on launching a bodycam program.
The benefits of implementing a BWC program in your department seem clear: it’s intended to improve transparency and trust and it can help hold the right people accountable. Without a doubt, bodycams are on the rise, and so are our questions.
We talked to CEO of Blue Line Innovations, Mark Hutchinson, who is behind the world’s first 360 degree bodycam, to answer questions about this piece of technology that isn’t going offline anytime soon. Before starting his company in 2010, Hutchinson worked as a chief deputy in a sheriff’s department in East Tennessee. We also spoke to Chief Jeff Gann of the Soddy Daisy Police Department, whose department of 31 sworn officers uses the Warrior 360 Body Cameras.
How does Blue Line Innovation’s 360-bodycams add value to officers? What’s the difference between 360-bodycams and traditional body-worn cameras?
Chief Jeff Gann: Officer safety and building the public’s trust are our key priorities, like any other department. My belief is that if your agency has integrity, and has sworn officers who are doing exactly what they are sworn to do, what could you possibly have to hide?
One feature that officers really need is to have body cameras that automatically turn on when an officer exits the vehicle [or has an encounter], which the Warrior 360 can be programmed to do. Before, you’d have to push a button manually whenever you needed to record, which might be too late sometimes to remember, let’s say after an altercation has taken place. Blue Line’s Warrior 360-camera already captures everything, including the officer’s surroundings when he gets out of the car, or really whenever the officer is interacting with the public. Now we know what’s happening to our officers all the way around.
Mark Hutchinson: With the 360 technology, we like to tell the whole story and not just a part of the story. Other cameras on the market can’t show what’s happening behind an officer. When the public reviews your average bodycam footage they see the aftermath of what’s going on in front of the officer, which can be easily misunderstood by the public as the officer being aggressive. Most cameras only tell a 90-degree story of a 360-degree incident. They leave out what they are unable to capture, which happens to be most of the incident.
When in-car video recording in policing started taking off in the ‘80s and ‘90s, it was mostly about capturing evidence of DUI offenders (walk & turn, one leg stand, etc.) Now law enforcement is under a lot of scrutiny, so today’s recordings are not just about capturing evidence but also about seeing how officers respond to incidents. Having a forward facing camera, especially those mounted in the chest area, can lead to problems like getting your hands in front of the lens so you’re not clearly able to see what happened in case things go wrong. Our cameras are mounted on the shoulder to look over the officer’s shoulder, so you won’t have the issue of your hands blocking the footage when you’re drawing a weapon.
What are some of the most common challenges officers have with bodycams?
MH: I think the software behind traditional body-worn cameras is often limited. Wouldn’t it be great to have your bodycam link every on-scene officer’s video evidence to a single case? Officers know that cases often take a long time to go to court and a lot can happen during that time. Our evidence management system called Fortify helps departments link evidence together. Now, not only can video evidence can be linked, but photos, documents, or any other physical or digital evidence as well. If several officers respond to one scene, those officers’ footage can be combined into one case. On the scene, someone like Chief Gann would just need to touch a button on the Fortify platform and be able to link evidence together, which makes the case more easily retrievable in the future.
CG: One other challenge is that even if you train officers to press the record button on their average body-worn camera, the reality is that officers still forget and sometimes that leads to disciplinary action. Now, I look at it like this: I’m on duty and getting over to a convenience store to get a drink and an altercation takes place and I get into a fight. I’m not going to take the time to stop what I’m doing to push a button. I would hate to be in a situation in which I’d have to look at a spouse [or partner] and say, “I’m sorry, here’s a plaque for your spouse [or partner’s] service to our city, and I’m sorry that they were just trying to push a recording button and that was the difference between life and death.”
Why train for something that can just be automated? It’s one less thing I need to worry about and I can spend more time protecting my safety in other ways. That’s how it can help train my officers to focus more on addressing the situation at hand.
So an inspiration for the company’s founding was a tragedy that, Mark, you experienced when another officer, Allen Lipford, was killed in the line of duty. How did this incident shape Blue Line Innovations?
MH: When Allen was killed in 1991 we didn’t have cameras of any kind. One night, during an escape of an inmate from the county jail, Allen pulled up to the Sheriff’s department and got out of his patrol vehicle. Having no knowledge of the escape attempt underway, the escaped inmate shot and killed him as soon as he exited his vehicle. Back then, it wasn’t so easily to piece together what happened, but with a bodycam there would have been no question of what had happened. Evidence was required to convict the murderer. What better evidence could there have been than a first person account captured by a body camera? It is our goal to ensure that the evidence is always captured, not only for case preparation and prosecutions of daily incidents, but to also protect the sanctity of life and provide evidence needed to prosecute those who hurt public servants.
Because of Allen’s sacrifice and the impact he made in my life, BLI strives to support and give back to communities that have lost officers, in an attempt to keep their memory alive and honor them.
What does the future of bodycam use look like?
CG: I think bodycams will be more widely used across the U.S. and agencies that are still holding back from using bodycams out of fear of being on the record need to shift their mindset. Body-worn cameras bring accountability and transparency not just for the department, but also for the community as well. Just having the ability to review the footage that’s captured and getting that visibility to what’s behind, to the left and to the right of the officer all in this immersive video can help a lot with our investigations.
MH: One thing we’re seeing and developing right now is automatic video redaction for our bodycam videos. Privacy concerns have prompted the need to redact footage of bystanders when releasing that footage to the public.
Another trend we’re going to see more in the bodycam industry is more incorporation with facial recognition technology. It’s going to be adopted more and more in the future, whether we like it or not. Facial recognition systems [which depend on “deep learning algorithms that analyze photos of faces and scan for similarities across a huge data set of similar images”] could help officers better find suspects and even missing children.
One other area that we’ve incorporated the 360 degree technology into is our in-car video system called the Sentinel. The Sentinel is a 360 degree car camera that can capture not just what’s ahead of the car but also the passenger’s side of the car and the driver’s side door. Every officer that’s been to the academy has seen video footage of officers being killed on traffic stops. In many cases, the altercation goes out of view of the static in-car video camera, so we can’t see what happened or how it ended. Because the Sentinel captures a 360 degree view, with the swipe of the screen, we can continue to watch what happens to the side of the vehicle, behind, as well as in front. This technology will not only aid in capturing more evidence to prosecute assailants, but also help train officers.