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Will Head-Mounted Video Recorders Help Burlington Police See City Crime?

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A police officer wearing an AXON Video Recorder
  • A police officer wearing an AXON Video Recorder

Queen City crime fighting has just entered the age of YouTube: Last week the Burlington Police Department outfitted six of its field officers with head-mounted digital recording devices that can document whatever the cops see and hear during the course of their shifts.

The devices, known as AXON Audio/Video Recorders, are similar in concept to in-car dashboard cameras, except that they capture events from the officer’s perspective — as many as eight hours of police activity each day. The BPD expects these mobile units will become valuable tools for prosecuting crimes, reducing hostile encounters with suspects, training new officers and investigating citizens’ complaints of police misconduct.

However, as with any new technology adopted by police — the BPD is the first law-enforcement agency in the state to deploy them — the AXON units are likely to raise questions about potential abuses, including invasion of privacy.

Deputy Chief Walt Decker says his department recently purchased six AXON units for about $1000 apiece and has issued them to officers on various shifts around the city as part of a 60- to 90-day pilot project. If the trial run is successful, Decker says the BPD will consider buying more AXON units and issuing them to all field officers. They may eventually replace the force’s dashboard cameras.

Several years ago there was a serious push in Vermont to deploy dashboard cams in all police cars, which significantly improved the prosecution of certain offenses, such as drunk driving and high-speed pursuits. However, dashboard cameras are static and only capture what passes through their field of view. And, as Decker explains, they’ve been less useful in Burlington, where police encounter most suspects on foot.

Each AXON mobile recorder features a wide-angle video camera and microphone mounted on a headset that resembles a rugged Bluetooth device. The officer also carries around a hard drive, a view screen about the size of a point-and-shoot camera, and a one-button control pad that lets him or her switch quickly between functions.

During an officer’s normal activities, the camera runs in buffering mode, which means it’s continuously recording but “looping,” or writing over, the last 30 seconds of data. In effect, an audio/visual file isn’t created unless the officer sees a “precipitating event,” such as a driver running a stop sign, that warrants switching to record mode.

From that point on, the device automatically saves the previous 30 seconds of audio/visual information and continues saving data until the officer switches to another mode. It can also bookmark a specific moment for later viewing. A third, privacy mode switches the camera and microphone off entirely when the officer enters sensitive areas such as restrooms, dressing rooms, courthouses and private residences. Otherwise, in such environments cops are required to inform citizens they are in record mode.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, such as a SWAT team standoff, the AXON allows police encounters to be observed from a remote location. Two-way radio capability facilitates communication in such instances. The camera also contains a GPS that logs the officer — and incident — by location.

At the end of each police shift, the camera unit is placed in a docking station that recharges the battery and automatically uploads the entire digital file to a secure, out-of-state server maintained by Evidence.com, a subsidiary of Taser International, AXON’s manufacturer. Decker says that if the department decides to outfit all its officers with cameras, those digital files will be uploaded and stored on-site at BPD’s headquarters on North Avenue.

According to the manufacturer, the AXON unit was specifically designed to prevent anyone from editing, manipulating, erasing or downloading the digital record, or saving that data to another device. Likewise, the camera cannot zoom but can only capture the normal field of vision. This, Decker asserts, deters officers from looking into places they couldn’t otherwise see with the naked eye.

Yet, even with such safeguards, Decker expects some citizens will voice concerns. For that reason, the BPD issued a new policy directive last month specifying usage guidelines. For example, it bans recording in places where the public has a “reasonable expectation of privacy,” except as part of a legitimate law-enforcement activity.

Additionally, the new policy specifically directs officers to “avoid using the AXON to record individuals who are picketing or engaging in a protest or First Amendment demonstration unless an obvious violation of criminal law is occurring.”

When does Decker expect the devices will be most advantageous? During any police encounter, he suggests, that could be clarified by an audio-visual record: approaching a stopped vehicle, interviewing a suspect at the scene of a crime or trying to determine the identity of a suspect who fled from police.

Decker also suggests that once people become aware that a mobile recording device is in use, they will be less likely to behave aggressively toward police and others.

“Most people are not going to act out or do something more outrageous if they know it’s being recorded,” Decker says. “It’s definitely a deterrent.”

In fact, these units may be useful for training purposes, as well as in assessing whether an officer’s conduct was appropriate for the situation. Was a cop justified in drawing his or her gun? Was the suspect doing something suspicious with his hands? Did the situation warrant the use of handcuffs or other physical restraints? AXON recorders have been used effectively by law-enforcement agencies in other states to corroborate or refute allegations of police brutality.

“I think that, like anything involving cameras, or people monitoring, it raises questions,” Decker admits. However, as he points out, this technology is already in the hands of the public, and is routinely used by citizens to document police activities. The beating of Rodney King was captured on video in 1991. “At every bar closing, whenever our officers are involved in an incident, what we’re seeing now are the hands going up with phones and people capturing that event,” Decker notes.

Now cops will have their version on video, too.

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