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New Body Cameras Aim to Remove User Error, Improve Documentary Evidence

The Stockton, Calif., Police Department is upgrading its older body-worn cameras with new units that promise less risk of officer error and more comprehensive coverage during critical events.

Body-worn cameras have been at the center of many recent national debates. The technology has both saved law enforcement careers and ended them by highlighting the stark differences between acceptable policing and, in some cases, unjustifiable homicide. 

Now, police officers in the city of Stockton, Calif., are slated to get a little help from technology by deploying body-worn cameras that capture action even before the officer activates the camera.

The cameras, a product of VIEVU, are constantly recording in 30-second intervals and overwriting the footage when it is not preceded by a camera activation. Police Chief Eric Jones says the capability will mean better coverage in events where an officer may not remember or may not be able to start recording immediately. 

Though the department has only had a body camera program for roughly a year, officials say these next-generation cameras will be an improvement over the existing system.  

“A lot can happen in 30 seconds,” he explained. “In fact, we’ve found in situations where the officer finds things unrolling very quickly, when they press the button they are only getting from that point forward. This will have picked up the previous 30 seconds, which is very, very critical as far as video documentation of what occurred.”

Despite the leg up, officers must still be trained to make recording an immediate part of their everyday routines. While the cameras may allow for some leeway, they will write over the footage if not activated in time.

“We have to work on and reduce what we call ‘human error,’ which is not just the muscle memory, but also recognizing human factors, such as stress,” Jones told Government Technology. “When someone is under stress, are they going to remember to activate a button? That's where we have to really focus on the muscle memory, and that’s where technology meets manual skills.” 

As has been the case in some of the high-profile body camera videos, the devices do not always capture the entire stream of events. 

Jones is confident that in conjunction with continued training and adherence to policy, the cameras will help to better protect the community and the officers serving in it with footage that might have otherwise been lost to time.

“We did find that officers were not always turning them on, and that was a result of the human error or user error or technological error, or just the fact that it unfolded so quickly that by the time they press their button it’s already in motion,” he said. “We build the training into everything they do because we are really going for that muscle memory; they have to remember to press the button …”

And Jones admits that the cameras are only as good as the policies that surround them and the officers’ willingness to activate them. Despite reluctance on the part of some departments to embrace the technology, the chief said his officers — and their union — not only fully supported the program, but helped to develop use policy and select the cameras.

“It’s in the public’s interest, obviously, but it’s in the officer’s interest,” he said. “We have had cases where the camera has cleared the officer of a false accusation.”

Even with support throughout the entire department, there are still some details to work out given that the cameras are essentially recording around the clock. 

“Clearly there are concerns with the fact that it is recording all of the time, when the officer is involved in a private conversation or even using the restroom," Jones said. "Those are valid concerns that my officers have and we are working through those mutually to come to a way to mitigate those factors."

According to Officer Joey Silva, the first batch of cameras is expected to arrive within the next week for deployment and testing. The department will ultimately purchase around 250 cameras for all uniformed personnel, Silva said, which is expected to cost around $250,000.

The police chief said the details of the purchase are still being worked out, and officials are weighing whether to fund the devices completely through private donations or in conjunction with the city’s general fund. Because of Stockton’s 2012 bankruptcy, Jones said financial constraints weigh into the purchase.

Eyragon Eidam is the managing editor for Industry Insider — California. He previously served as the daily news editor for Government Technology. He lives in Sacramento, Calif.