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Camera system provides panoramic view for police

Multiple-camera video system provides a 270-degree view around the vehicle


By Michele Coppola
Tech Beat Magazine

A multiple-camera video system installed on Palo Alto police cruisers provides officers with a broad view of activity surrounding the vehicle.

All of the police department’s 26 cars are equipped with the system, which has five separate cameras that provide high-definition video and high fidelity audio, according to Lt. Zach Perron, police public affairs manager. The department finished outfitting its entire fleet in November 2014.

(TechBeat Image)
(TechBeat Image)

One camera faces out the front windshield like a traditional dashboard camera, while another one faces out the back. Two cameras are mounted on the sides of the car and are built into the light bar if the car has one.

“Those four exterior view cameras provide a 270-degree view around the police car,” Perron says. “The fifth camera keeps an eye on the back seat prisoner. There’s no system of which I’m aware that provides any higher amount of coverage than this one.”

The officer wears a microphone that looks like a pager on his belt, which transmits audio back to the car even if the officer is out of view.

“It’s great. Our old system from 2006 only had two cameras, the front windshield and a backseat camera, but the audio on that one was basically the line of site of the patrol car, so once you got a block away it was no good,” Perron says. “The audio on this new system is fantastic, so you can be around the corner, have trees in the way, and the quality of the audio is good, so when what is happening is not on camera, you can still hear what the officer is saying and what the member of the public is saying.”

Palo Alto is in the San Francisco Bay area. The departmwent has 90 officers serving a population of about 66,000. The majority of offenses involve property crime such as burglary.

The purpose of the camera system is to help preserve an independent, objective record of what the officer encounters. The recordings are used as evidence in court, and can also be used to increase accountability by monitoring officer activity.

“The audio and video protects our personnel against frivolous complaints and protects the public against impropriety from an officer,” Perron says.

All five cameras automatically record video as soon as the car is turned on, and can capture up to 40 hours of video. Audio is activated when the officer pushes an event record button, such as during a traffic stop or other event. However, often the system will automatically go into event mode without the officer pushing a button, because it is preset to activate when the red lights on top of the car are on, or when the car goes over 80 miles per hour. Event mode will also be triggered if the police car is involved in an accident, or if either back door of the vehicle is opened for a prisoner.

“Anytime the ignition is on, the system is on and recording five channels of video to the buffer,” Perron says. “So if we need to, we can go back and carve out a piece of video from the past 40 hours.”

For example, a business owner reported that his establishment had been burglarized overnight. Police were able to determine that a patrol car had
passed by the business in the early morning hours and video from a side view camera showed a suspect vehicle in the parking lot, which helped with the investigation.

Event incident records are stored separately.

“Once we push record it keeps that event recording and stores it separately, apart from the 40-hour buffer. It moves to a separate pool of data. The 40-hour buffer is to keep anything that might have happened that we did not know was happening at the time,” Perron explains.

The officer uses a touch screen to choose which camera view to display on his monitor. Also, the system provides automatic wireless uploads of data.

“Officers don’t have to push a button, they just drive their car into the station and it uploads data to a secure encrypted server,” Perron says. “It knows the car is in the station because it is picking up a local wireless access point in the garage. With an older dashboard camera system, the data might have to be written to a DVD, and the officer has to transfer the data from the car to the station server. This system eliminates that step.”

The system also has the capability to live stream video from the car to a command station, which Perron says would help with situational awareness and officer safety during an incident. The department is waiting to use that feature until a use policy is worked out.

As for system cost, Perron says the $305,000 contract the agency signed covered 28 car systems and nine body-worn cameras, which the agency is currently field-testing.

One disadvantage of the new system for some agencies may be the large amount of data storage required.

“You need to purchase servers that can accommodate the massive amount of data. You need to have the infrastructure to retain that data according to state standards,” Perron explains. “We retain the event recordings for two years and potentially longer if it is evidence in a criminal case.”

Also, with any camera system, a policy needs to be in place governing usage.

“We’ve been using dashcam video since 2006 so our policy did not change that much with a new system, but an agency going from nothing to this has to ensure management and union are on the same page as to mandatory recording policy,” he says.

“We’ve been so happy with this system. With the old system, the quality of audio was shoddy when you got a distance away from the car, and the video quality, while excellent by 2006 standards, was not up to contemporary standards. With the new system, the video is HD quality, crystal clear and the audio is a big improvement.”

For more information, contact Lt. Zach Perron at Zachary.Perron@CityofPaloAlto.org. For information about the National Institute of Justice Sensor, Surveillance and Biometric technologies program, contact Mark Greene at Mark.Greene2@usdoj.gov.

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