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Automatic Activations

March 13, 2020

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:

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.

Representations of a typical light bar and a holster trigger sensor
photo credit (left): Kate Song led warning light bar (license)

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.

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