Is Live-Streamed Video Really That Valuable to Cops?

While many law enforcement officials are dabbling with real-time video feeds during investigations, experts believe still images are more effective for decision-making.

by / January 15, 2015
For law enforcement, a still image is sometimes the preferred choice over video. SkyIMD
For law enforcement, a still image is sometimes the preferred choice over video.SkyIMD

Having a bird’s eye view during an investigation or emergency is a great intelligence-gathering tool for responders. But while real-time video from drones and other aerial vehicles is now relatively affordable and widely available, experts say cops are still -- and will likely continue -- using photos more.

The Delaware State Police (DSP), Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office in California, and the enforcement division of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are all heavily relying on aerial photography even though they have access to live video, according to Mark Zaller, director of product marketing for SkyIMD, an aerial imagery company that provides the data from gimbals attached to small planes, helicopters and drones.

Dave Grossi, a retired police lieutenant from upstate New York, wasn’t surprised that photos were more popular. He explained that while he still would require video of a scene to be sent and review it, he’d still focus more on photographs because they provide a more accurate and complete overview of the situation.

“I frequently will examine several of the stills for long periods of time focusing on the oftentimes small, but relevant images captured in the photos, something not practical with video,” Grossi said.

The DSP declined a request by Government Technology to discuss its usage of aerial imagery and video footage. But Zaller called the DSP “a good example” of an agency that relies on snapshots, noting that they work with both local police, the U.S. Coast Guard and various federal agencies, and are “very active” about downloading photos taken from the air.

Zaller added that SkyIMD’s customers are provided with video if that’s what they want, but felt live video was popular more because of the drama that captivates people by seeing a crime or some other event unfold in front of them, rather than for strategic purposes.

“Everybody wants to see the big flare, the shootout, who is running where and hiding,” he said. “But that means people are looking at their phones instead of chasing [a suspect]. People get glued to the tube and anticipating what’s next.”

The other drawback of video is that you need to have a network and good connectivity. That’s a problem at times for users such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, according to Zaller, which use SkyIMD’s technology to help spot poachers and do other tasks, such as bird-counting.

Out in remote areas, enforcement personnel have smartphones and tablets, but it’s much easier to view an image sent using a satellite connection than it is to stream video over an intermittent Wi-Fi signal.

While pictures and video both have their uses, Zaller noted that it takes someone sitting there watching the video to appreciate it. A still image, however, can sit until someone is ready to look at it and go back and reference much more easily.

Grossi agreed.

“Where video is provided, I’m often forced to play it several times … to capture the action I’m looking for [and] compass directions are also confusing,” Grossi said. “Additionally, when I do have to stop the action, I’m left with a very distorted image.”

Brian Heaton

Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology magazine from 2011 to mid-2015.

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