Streaming to Protect and Serve: Video in Law Enforcement
A few years ago, while attending a Saturday morning traffic safety and defensive-driving class, I struck up a conversation with one of the police officers who patrolled a particularly busy stretch of local four-lane highway.
In the conversation, he brought up the issue of transitioning from in-car video solutions that used analog video recording on a physical medium to the newer digital, file-based video recorders. He mentioned that, as an officer, he wasn't allowed to take the tape out of the recorder, to avoid any potential conflict of interest or perceived evidence tampering, but that keeping track of a physical tape seemed much easier than keeping track of video files in a world where physical evidence still ruled the day.
In 2019, that issue of collecting and tracking evidence is no longer an issue just for in-car camera systems, but one that covers every step of evidence gathering, retention, and presentation.
This article covers just a few major points for the streaming industry to consider when it comes to use of streaming video or audio for law enforcement purposes in the United States. There are some interesting problems to be solved, and the opportunity to expand towards global markets, but the potential social and financial rewards for "getting it right" in an era of distrust are critical for both suspects and officers to have access to increasingly media-rich evidence.
From body cameras to in-dash recorders, it seems that law enforcement cameras are proliferating.
One of the largest names in body camera technology is WatchGuard Video, based in Allen, Texas. The company's founder, Robert Vanman, sold his stake in a radar detector company in 2002 and founded WatchGuard to focus on the video needs of first responders.
"We started off in the in-car video space back in 2002," said Vanman during a recent radio interview with KRLD in Dallas, "then we started dabbling with body cameras back in 2010, and we decided to go big in body cameras in early 2013."
Vanman said that WatchGuard had created its own platform for recording body cameras, but that demand for body cameras "exploded" after a 2014 call to action by the family of Michael Brown, a Ferguson, Missouri teen, asked protesters to peaceably join in a movement to compel the use of body cameras for police officers.
"We ask that you channel your frustration in ways that will make a positive change," the family wrote in a November 2014 statement, released after a grand jury chose not to charge a police officer in Brown's death. "We need to work together to fix the system that allowed this to happen. Join with us in our campaign to ensure that every police officer working the streets in this country wears a body camera."
Vanman acknowledges that the use of body cameras is both for the protection of the officer and a department's reputation with the general public.
"If you go back 15 or 20 years, police officers were often fairly resistant to having a camera put into their car," said Vanman. "But once the in-car video kind of saved their reputation or supported their story, then they become fans and use the system more aggressively."
"We're seeing the same transition with body cameras," said Vanman. "Out of the gate, a lot of officers are resistant, kind of feels like Big Brother, but once they see the benefit that it has and it corroborates their story, they don't want to leave the precinct without it."
WatchGuard has a significant competitor in a company called Axon. The company used to be called Taser, synonymous with the non-lethal shocking device that most law enforcement officers carry on their belts.
"We look at our space as law enforcement video," said Vanman. "Between Watchguard and Axon we probably make up 80% of the market."
WatchGuard Video and Axon make up about 80% of the law enforcement video market, according to WatchGuard Video founder Robert Vanman.
Filling in the Gaps
Not only have officers had to become comfortable wearing their own body cameras, but they also have to contend with the rising use of smartphone video recordings from bystanders, or even the person they're approaching for questioning.
Early efforts by law enforcement to quell the use of bystander recordings in court—arguing, in some instances, that the recordings were edited or only show a portion of the interaction with officers—were met with resistance by judges unwilling to infringe on First Amendment rights.
Without wading too deeply into the debate around what can or cannot be filmed—we're a tech magazine, after all—we will point towards two landmark cases in 2017.
The first was one where bystander-initiated video, recorded and later streamed, can have a positive net effect. In early 2015, bystander Feidin Santana filmed a North Charleston, SC police officer fire at a fleeing and unarmed suspect, striking him in the back five times and ultimately killing him. Santana's video directly contradicted officer Michael Slager's account of shooting Walter Scott in self-defense and, while the local trial ended in a mistrial, Slager pled guilty in 2017 to federal charges of deprivation of rights and the use of excessive force. Slager is now serving a 20-year sentence, having lost a federal appeals case in early 2019.
A second case in 2013 had to do with whether or not a bystander recording a police interaction was covered under the First Amendment. In this time period, there was little precedent that kept pace with the technology of smartphones being able to record and/or live stream video. As such, the initial trial outcome for Fields vs City of Philadelphia, a judge that the mere act of "taking … pictures with no further comments" did not constitute protected "expressive conduct" under the First Amendment since the judge surmised that the defendant was not expressing their opinion by merely recording the act, which itself was allowed by a written policy on the Philadelphia Police Department's website.
The ruling was reversed by the Third Circuit Court, which said the lower court had erred by focusing on intent of the act of recording rather than the act itself. The reversal also noted that citizen recordings fill in the gaps between officer body cameras and dashboard cameras, ultimately enriching an understanding of what is occurring in the moment and spurring "action at all levels of government to address police misconduct and to protect civil rights."
Ruggedizing Video Cameras
In prior articles around mining, manufacturing, and deep-sea drilling or exploration, we've covered the need to ruggedize cameras and other acquisition equipment for harsh operating environments.
The same requirement exists for law enforcement video units. Not only do they demand high-definition video but also wideband audio, both so that command posts can follow the action in real time but also so that the audio and video are clear enough for later use in court.
"We go to pretty herculean efforts to ensure that the cameras are, almost, literally, bulletproof," Vanman said, chuckling and adding that the company has a picture on the wall at its new headquarters of one of its Vista cameras "that actually got shot and survived, but we don't guarantee that they're actually bulletproof."
Chain of Custody
All those live streams are important, but what happens to the video footage once it's archived as video recordings? How is it collated, can it be retrieved easily, and is it secure? Can it be manipulated (beyond just truncating the video)?
My first exposure to in-dash recorders came way back in 1993, when I worked in public affairs and video production at a military aerospace testing facility. As antiquated as it sounds now, we were the only nearby location that had, among other high-tech capabilities, a VHS duplicating machine.
A local sheriff's office approached the military officer in charge of our production facility, asking us to duplicate a video where a suspect claimed use of excessive force by local police in a routine traffic stop. The video clearly showed that—after repeated warnings to both driver and passenger to stay in the car while the officer ran identifying information—that the passenger exited the stopped car, hands in front and together, stepped into the officer's face, and dared him to arrest her while saying "you're not a real cop."
The officer complied, with no use of force. Yet the video was necessary to prove his version of events. Fortunately, the duplicated video, shown on a borrowed VHS player in the judge's chambers before trial started, resulted in the case of excessive force being withdrawn by the suspect's attorney.