Dashboard cameras in police cars have changed America's legal and cultural landscape. Installed in thousands of patrol vehicles nationwide, these devices have exonerated police and provided TV producers with harrowing footage of high-speed chases and roadside shootouts. Now Taser, a company better known for its (mostly) nonlethal weapons than for surveillance, has developed a product that takes the camera out of the squad car to where the action is, while worn by an officer.
The (which stands for Autonomous eXtended on-Officer Network) is a small, lightweight headset that fits into an officer's ear and aims wherever he or she looks. Besides recording up to 10.5 hours of video, it can serve as an earpiece for police radios.
According to Steve Tuttle, vice president of communications at Taser, the officer's-eye-view capability could mean the difference between conviction and exoneration. The device backs up an officer's "situational awareness," Tuttle says. "Does what he saw fit into the constitutional guidelines of use of force?"
AXON's positioning gives it an advantage over a camera mounted on the officer's chest, for example, where the lens could be obstructed by the officer's drawn weapon, or by an object used for cover. Similarly, a static dashboard camera could record a confusing jumble of images as people and objects weave in and out of the frame during a confrontation. Anything off-camera could be open to interpretation: Is the subject screaming in pain, or as he's assaulting an officer? A head-mounted system may help clarify such situations.
The AXON isn't the first attempt at a body-mounted surveillance system. In the past two years, have shown promising results. by officers in the city of Plymouth, in southwest England, was particularly useful in public disorder cases. Offenders who might normally dispute the charge were essentially shamed into silence after later watching videos of their own drunken conduct.
In general, British use of the devices seemed to reduce the number of false complaints against officers, produce more guilty pleas, and cut down on time spent taking statements or writing up reports. The headcams generated evidence videos that made witnesses to domestic abuse more likely to stick to their stories, according to a report issued by the British Police and Crime Standards Directorate.
During these trial runs, headcam-wearing British officers wore CCTV (close-circuit TV) signs on their uniforms and had to notify the people they interacted with that they were being recorded. Unless the videos were being held as evidence, the collected data was deleted after 31 days. For agencies using a system like the AXON in this country, regulations will probably vary by state. In Illinois, for example, police can capture video but not audio. Taser plans to adjust the AXON's software to comply with regulations that apply to the purchasing agency.
Taser is hoping that the AXON's popularity will eventually rival that of dash cams. The AXON will cost less than a dashboard camera system--less than $1,000 for the headset and a handheld display, compared to as much as $3,000 for a dashboard camera. The AXON comes with a color or infrared camera, designed to record footage continuously at a relatively choppy 10fps without audio. Once the 8GB of internal memory and optional mini-SD card fill up, the video records over existing footage. During a break or bathroom stop, the wearer can put the headset into a no-video "privacy mode." When something important is going on, officers can hit an "event button" to save the previous minute of video, and switch to a higher-quality 30fps recording mode, which includes what Taser calls "DVD-quality" audio.
To some extent, this sort of accountability-based camera is familiar territory for Taser. Some of the company's police and military-issue Tasers come mounted with cameras and onboard chips that record usage details, such as when the weapon was discharged, and for how long. The AXON's footage is "hashed"--embedded with data that can be checked later for authenticity--to protect against tampering and make it convincing as evidence.
Taser is also marketing AXON to the military, primarily as a tactical tool. The headset can be helmet-mounted, or detached and used as a remote camera to view around corners or into attics, with the video visible on the 2.8-in. LCD display.
Taser will start testing the AXON this year, and hopes to begin selling it in 2009. Tuttle is expecting to encounter some resistance in marketing the device to police officers. "It's going to take a lot of work--work with unions and work with administrators," he says. "At first blush, it sounds like Big Brother. But if we're not doing it, it's the kid next door recording it with his cellphone. And what if he didn't flip it open in time, and he doesn't catch his buddy making verbal threats or attacking the officers first? What happens then?"
Taser hopes to begin selling its new lightweight headset (top and left) to local law enforcement and the military for under $1000 beginning next year. One test program of similar cop-mounted hardware in England was successful in capturing footage (right) of disorderly behavior, which proved more difficult to dispute the next day. (Images Courtesy of Taser and Devon & Cornwall Constabulary)