Crime & Courts

‘Not film directors’: Richland deputies testing gun-activated body cameras

Draw your weapon, your camera turns on

Personal body cameras become one less thing to think about
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Personal body cameras become one less thing to think about

Body-worn cameras were the answer of many law enforcement agencies to quell public mistrust and increase transparency after a spate of high-profile shootings involving police. But what happens if an officer forgets to activate his camera before an incident?

The Richland County Sheriff’s Department is one of several agencies nationwide that is field testing a smart sensor that uses Bluetooth technology to send a signal to an officer’s body camera to activate when that officer draws his firearm from its holster. The camera on any officer within a 30-foot radius also will activate regardless of whether their weapons are drawn.

“It takes away that human factor,” said sheriff’s Lt. Albert McLendon. “If they were to have to draw their sidearm in haste, it’s going to activate the camera for them.”

Axon, formerly known as Taser, developed the wireless sensor that is mounted on an officer’s holster. A dozen or so police agencies are field testing the device, including 60 Richland County deputies who began wearing them in the field last month, McLendon said.

Turning on a camera manually only puts it into what is called “pre-buffer mode,” in which the camera constantly records video but no sound, Steve Tuttle, vice president for strategic communications for Axon, told The State. When an officer double taps a button to declare an “event,” the camera saves the previous 30 seconds of video-only before the camera was activated and begins recording – and saving – all video and sound.

The sidearm sensor skips the step requiring an officer to twice press a button to activate the camera, which Tuttle said can be vital when a situation unfolds suddenly. The sensor detects the absence of the metal slide on the top of a firearm and sends a signal to the cameras to start recording. The signal lasts for 30 seconds, so the camera on any officer who enters that 30-foot vicinity during that time will activate. The camera will continue recording and saving footage until an officer presses and holds the button for five seconds.

Law enforcement and Axon officials say the sensor is another step toward increased transparency and fewer human errors when it comes to officers activating body cameras.

“They’re not film directors first,” Tuttle said of requiring officers to remember to activate their cameras before something happens. “They’re programmed to react to critical moments. They have to take that officer’s safety and the public’s safety first and foremost.”

Richland deputies have worn body cameras on the job since March. Tuttle said the sidearm sensor is an accessory that is compatible with newer Axon cameras and can be purchased after an agency already has a full complement of cameras.

Body cameras have become a hot-button issue in recent years, with numerous high-profile police-involved shootings around the country, including the 2015 killing of Walter Scott by former North Charleston police officer Michael Slager. A passerby caught that shooting on video.

Tuttle also noted last month’s fatal shooting of an unarmed Australian woman who approached two Minnesota police officers in their squad car. The officers did not activate their body cameras until after one of them shot the woman.

“Had they had the sensor on that holster, it would have turned those cameras on and it would have saved those 30 seconds prior as well,” he said.

The ACLU thinks the device is a good move.

“Anytime where police can do something that can try to further break the barrier between the community and the police department and build trust, I think it’s a good thing,” said Shaundra Scott, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina. “It’s just a matter of following through.”

After the testing period, Axon will take the feedback from the 14 or so agencies testing the sensors and make necessary modifications, Tuttle said. They expect to have the devices available for purchase late next month, although it is still too early to provide a ballpark estimate on price, Tuttle said.

The sheriff’s department will decide on purchasing the sensors after the testing period, McLendon said.

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