The video camera, in its many forms, has integrated itself into law enforcement's day-to-day practices and tactics. From recording harrowing clips of dangerous interactions at traffic stops to peering into a barricaded room to capturing the drug deal in the dark, the video camera can almost be considered "necessity" over "tool."
Budgets are tight, this is common knowledge. With the video camera providing law enforcement such a variety of capabilities, the combination of budget and the purchase of a potentially expensive video camera can render an agency's buyer out of focus.
"[A camera] helps protect not only the public but also the officer," says Chuck Garrett, international business development manager for Safety Vision. Among many other benefits, officers use it for evidentiary purposes, instead of relying on someone's testimonials if what happened was in question.
"There's nothing more real or more non-biased than a video of an interaction," Garrett adds.
While cameras provide law enforcement with a vital tool, they also are commonly paired with a substantial price tag. When researching a new video camera, buyers would benefit from knowing and understanding the needs and requirements that future uses will necessitate.
"One of the things to ask when you pick out a camera is what is going to be the main purpose or the main use — how is it going to function," advises TacView founder, retired Sgt. George Gilmer.
"[Officers] have to consider camera accessibility, lighting and environment of the area that needs to be inspected," agrees Bob Levine, president of Zistos Corp. "In other words, you don't want to use just a security camera."
Noting this, video camera technology transgresses to different roles for the law enforcement officer's toolbox. "In most cases, certainly on a tactical side, you need to look in inaccessible or dangerous areas, so you want the camera to bear the load of danger," he says. "Put the camera in harm's way, not your head."
Points of interest
The task of purchasing law enforcement equipment lacks a psychic's crystal ball; officers simply cannot peer into the lens and ask for the best choice. Points to consider when choosing a camera include:
• Amount of ruggedness
With Mil-Spec's web of codes, the definition of "rugged" transposes from product to product regarding the type of electronic device and intended use. Still, Zistos' Levine says the rugged aspect remains an important detail.
"In many instances, you will be in a situation where the stress level is high and you're not always thinking of handling your equipment delicately," notes Bob Levine. It may be pouring rain, dirty or other environmentally unfriendly areas hostile to electronics.
He adds: "These cameras are uniquely form factored and not something you're going to buy at an electronics store."
Consumer electronics typically have higher resolutions, deeper darks, thinner panels and larger screens; yet top-of-the-line products seem to run at top-of-the-line prices. Such complex resolution specifications, while attractive, may not be best suited for law enforcement's video camera solutions.
Barry Levine, vice president of business development with Sperry West, explains that if an agency utilizes a device with a 400-line recording capability, no matter how high of a resolution or line count the camera may feature, the recording will only be recorded at 400 line resolution. "The problem is the recorder; you have to have a recorder that is capable of recording the same or better quality," he adds.
Tactical cameras, such as pole cameras, are less dependent on a high resolution — it's more vital for officers is to be able to see the suspect and the presence of any weapon. However, investigative cameras may need more resolution to recognize objects and/or signs of tampering.
Night vision is yet another chapter within the video camera category.
Stefan Pryor, sales manager for L-3 Electro-Optical Systems offers a few key performance metrics to define the performance of a night vision device: Center resolution, the device's imaging tube and signal-to-noise ratio (SNR).
He says one may want a strong gain on the night vision product and with the camera. "This allows you to adapt the amount of light coming through the night vision tube."
In addition to gain, the environment affects night vision devices by range and resolution, Pryor says. He suggests the area of surveillance, whether rural or other, be considered. "You need to pay attention to the gain and type of tube: Thin filmed, unfilmed and what kind of tube is inside the device," he advises.
Two problems arise with the concept of lighting. (1) The recording needs to be adequately lit, yet (2) in tactical and surveillance, a bright light will advertise the camera's presence — or worse, a SWAT member's location.
"Lighting is paramount, extremely important and highly overlooked in terms of what a setup really is like," says Sperry West's Barry Levine. In a surveillance situation, if the camera is pointed at a door, any light coming in when that door is opened may overwhelm the camera's balance. He explains that if the camera "sees" all that light, its circuitry may automatically darken the recording, thus leaving only a silhouetted subject.
Many times tactical missions require officers to remain covert; a camera's emitted light should not turn the officer into a target.
Infrared technology may be a possible solution; however, while the beam may be invisible, it is possible to see the source — a red-like glow, explains Barry Levine.
"It depends on the nanometers," he continues, "you've usually got to be around the 950 nanometer range to have nothing visible with no glow." The drawback of long-range "totally invisible" technology is that it comes with an expensive price tag — beyond the budgets of many smaller local police departments.
One alternative solution could be an image intensifier. In her experience, Kari Yeh, research marketing manager for L-3 Infrared Products, points out that often law enforcement chooses image intensifiers for low-light work due to their lower price point. "However, it can't work in complete darkness; usually you need a little bit of light," she adds.
Ultimately, Barry Levine suggests buyers focus on whether the camera is going to be handheld or wearable, or whether it can be set up inside a vehicle or room. "Buyers need to know what they are going to use it for," he adds. The agency then may want to investigate whether the camera is meant for inside or outside surveillance, if and how the scene is being transmitted, stored or viewed.
"It's not a hard sell in convincing police agencies that they need cameras," says Garrett. "I think they realize they need them, yet the little nuances between the systems are important."
There is no one solution for everything; while nothing truly works 100 percent for every investigation, it is the same for equipment, reminds Barry Levine. "You can't buy something and hope it's going to be a cure-all."