There are numerous ways a body or dash camera can be activated. In a perfect world, a camera would always automatically turn on and off in strict accordance with an agency’s policy. Of course, that is not achievable. There are so many types of law enforcement contacts and calls for service, and responders must have the ability to use reasonable discretion. As a result, agencies often debate to what extent automatic camera triggers should be used.
For in-car cameras, it is a bit more straightforward; cameras should generally be activated when the emergency lights are on and then turned off at the conclusion of the interaction. In-car cameras should also be on during pursuits. However, with body cameras, there can be more subjectivity involved, and there are numerous pros and cons of automatic triggers. On one hand, manual activation develops important muscle memory and avoids using automatic triggers as a crutch. On the other hand, automatic camera activation can be invaluable in order to capture adversarial contacts where activation of a camera may compromise officer safety. To complicate matters, some automatic triggers can be unreliable or lead to inadvertent activations that cause confusion, intrusion of officer privacy, or irreparable harm to community relations. Let’s take a look at a few examples, which illustrate that even well-intentioned triggers can lead to unintended consequences:
- Example 1: Officer Harris is chasing after a subject at speeds exceeding 100 miles per hour. By leveraging a speed trigger, Officer Harris’ body worn and dash cameras turn on automatically due to the high speed, allowing him to keep his hands on the wheel.
- Example 2: After numerous years on traffic patrol in a standard police vehicle, Deputy Jones is assigned to a bike patrol unit. On his previous assignment, he never had to activate his body camera manually since it automatically turned on when his emergency lights turned on during a traffic stop. He has not developed sufficient muscle memory and, despite good intentions, continually violates policy by failing to manually activate his camera during pedestrian contacts that turn adversarial.
- Example 3: Deputy Olson is conducting a late-night area check when she sees a robbery in progress at an ATM. She draws her weapon and holds the subject at gunpoint while calling for backup. Deputy Olson’s BWC turns on automatically thanks to a holster trigger. When the gun is drawn, the camera turns on.
- Example 4: Anytown Police Department has set up their body camera system such that if a BWC is turned on, any camera within a 25 yard radius also turns on. Officer Lawrence and Officer Adams respond to a domestic disturbance. Upon arrival, one party (the aggressor) appears combative while the other party (the victim) is distraught and wearing minimal clothing. The victim notices Officer Adams’ BWC and asks that their interaction is not recorded. Officer Adams uses allowed discretion and agrees. Simultaneously, Officer Lawrence begins to confront the aggressor and activates his BWC. This action causes Officer Adams’ BWC to turn on. A light is illuminated and an audible alert is played. The victim feels betrayed by Officer Adams and refuses to cooperate any further.
Visual Labs has developed numerous automatic triggers, including a gun holster trigger, speed trigger, officer injury trigger, and emergency light activation trigger. Our philosophy during training is to emphasize that cameras should be proactively activated manually wherever possible. Visual Labs’ offering of effectively unlimited cloud storage, coupled with automatic in-field upload, mitigates any concerns about running out of storage space or being billed for excessive storage. Ideally, automatic triggers will never need to be used, but they are an excellent fallback when the unexpected arises.
During software development at Visual Labs, we strive to avoid false positives wherever possible and only build automatic triggers to handle clear and obvious situations when the camera should be recording. As an example, it is hard to think of a situation where an officer has their gun drawn while on patrol and the camera should be off. Contrarily, an “officer running” trigger is too ambiguous in our opinion. Such a trigger helps capture foot pursuits, but can lead to numerous inconvenient false positives for benign or sensitive events, such as running into the station for a forgotten item or running to the restroom between lengthy calls for service!
As technology evolves, there are many interesting inputs that can be leveraged for camera activation, such as detection of an elevated heart rate via a paired watch. At the same time, it will be important to balance reliability, precision, officer safety, and officer privacy, among many other considerations.