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The topic of police body cameras is one of countless 21st century debates. Agencies are divided on whether the technology serves to help or hinder, and only a handful of police departments across Arizona use body worn cameras (BWC’s). With 102 sworn officers fully equipped, the Tempe Police Department is one of them.
The Tempe PD isn’t necessarily there to tell every criminal justice agency in the country (or the state, for that matter) to implement BWC’s across the board, but they’ve observed quite a bit of positive change since initial fulfillment in November of 2015. The agency began efforts to secure funding in 2014, and after presenting their technological needs and acquiring thousands in grant money, they began to test partial deployment within their own department.
Finding the perfect BWC is easier said than done, however. A wide range of police-tailored body cams make up a chunk of the wearable technology market, and it can be tricky to identify which make and model best fits a particular department. For the Tempe PD, it was “very little about the camera—it [was] about the data, the storage,” according to Patrol Commander Noah Johnson, the only sworn officer on the agency’s BWC panel. Rather than picking a model that provided especially high-resolution audio and video, the Tempe PD chose one that offered pre-recording, high data storage, and even meta tagging through a synchronized mobile application. The winning body cam? The Axon Body 2, designed and manufactured by the same company that makes officers’ traditional TASER devices.
The Axon Body 2 is perhaps one of the most flexible BWC’s on the market. Should an officer be unable to safely hit “start” on his or her camera until after a critical incident has begun, the camera provides a 30-second, video-only pre-record to help make up for lost time. Officers are unable to pull data from their cameras onto personal devices—a major concern to many civilians—and can only release data from their cameras by docking them at any Tempe PD substation. Compared to many other BWC’s (including those attached to eyeglasses, like the Axon Flex, which the Tempe PD uses for its mounted units and specialty assignments), the Axon Body 2 allows for a 142° field of view. It stores up to 64 GB of data locally, and its battery lasts just over 12 hours on average.
Since the Tempe PD issued work-only iPhones to its officers last year, the Axon Body 2 has become a far more flexible device than ever before imagined. Officers can “tag” videos with dates and descriptors on their iPhones to make the videos easier to find later on. The ability to stream captured video through the iPhone helps to work through officer-civilian conflicts after the fact, making for a far more sensitive force (and a more understanding community) in the long run. On its own, the distribution of department iPhones has made it easier for officers to seamlessly communicate with civilians without having to give up personal phone numbers.
According to Commander Johnson and the Tempe Police Department’s technical services administrator Angelique Watson, the implementation of BWC’s throughout the agency has helped to enhance transparency, deescalate potentially dangerous situations, effectively train recruits, and collect more comprehensive evidence. With over 65,000 photo, audio, and video files collected since fulfillment, the Tempe PD has gathered plenty of footage with which to train new recruits and sharpen existing officers’ skills. The fact that the BWC is displayed openly on an officer’s chest or shoulder helps to prove the officer’s loyalty and transparency with his or her community. Interestingly, the mere presence of a body cam can deescalate a situation by making use of the “civilizing effect,” in which a civilian feels a psychological and moral obligation to be more truthful with an officer because he or she is being “watched.” Lastly, the implementation of BWC’s helps to eliminate hearsay by providing real evidence from an event, rather than forcing members of a court to base their judgments off of personal retellings.
So far, no major cases in Tempe have been won or lost due to footage from a body cam; but days’ worth of evidence has been pulled for court use. The same rules apply for camera footage as for requesting a police report, so for a small fee, civilians can ask for a copy of a photo, audio clip, or video in which they—or their family members—have made a guest appearance. This ease of use helps to further increase transparency between the agency, the local courts, and the community. “At the end of the day, this technology is not meant to scare people—it’s meant to help,” says Angelique Watson. “We’ve seen it done more good than bad, at this point.”
In May of 2016, the Tempe Police Department will begin full deployment of the Axon Body 2. The agency will operate 350 cameras by the end of August.