Body-worn cameras are the latest must-have devices in police work and are spreading fast to departments nationwide. But the technology is raising a lot of questions, from the cost to the accessibility of the footage. Here are answers to some questions about body cameras.
Q: How are they used?
A: Officers wear a camera on their chest or the side of their sunglasses that records their interactions with the public. Some cities allow officers discretion about when the cameras are on or off. Hours upon hours of footage are cataloged, loaded onto a server and purged after a set period of time, depending on its value as evidence in ongoing legal cases.
Q: What do they cost?
A: Depending on the features, the cameras can cost anywhere from $200 to more than $1,000. Agencies also need docking stations to charge their batteries and software programs to store and access their footage. Optional cloud-based data storage plans for each camera typically run anywhere from $20 per month to more than $100, depending on the volume of data. Agencies that opt to store the footage internally will likely need to buy additional servers.
Q: Why are they gaining popularity?
A: Body cameras have been touted as a tool to improve relations between police and the communities they serve. Demand has exploded since the fatal shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in August by a police officer and subsequent protests. Officers like the recordings because they protect them against false accusations and can be powerful evidence in court. Community activists say they are a check on police misconduct.
Q: Who are the main players in the body camera industry?
A: One of the biggest is Taser International, the Arizona-based maker of police stun guns. Taser has landed contracts with scores of departments to supply cameras and a cloud-based storage system. Hundreds more are testing cameras. Its most popular model, the AXON body, retails for $399.
Another industry leader is Seattle-based VieVu, which says its 4,000 U.S. law enforcement customers shot 10 million hours of police video in 2014. Company President Steve Lovell says the cameras will help pay for themselves by reducing lawsuits and settlements.
Q: What legal questions are police departments and other officials grappling with?
A: The biggest is who gets to see or download the mountains of data accumulated by the cameras, from innocuous encounters to serious run-ins. Departments are being swamped with public records requests from watchdog groups and others. As a result, lawmakers in many states are reviewing the laws governing access. Officials are also assessing how long videos must be kept for use in legal cases.