A night on with the Axon

I’ve heard it called a game changer more than once by law enforcement. What was surprising about it is it was unsolicited and said by supervisors unaffiliated with a company. These were real law enforcement managers with street experience and far from endorsement deals.

Thursday nights are typically the busier of the week for the sworn staff at Whitewater Police Department. Though the city has a resident population of around 13,400, an ever-recycling student population at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater tallied at about 13,700 keeps Thursday evenings eventful.

About six weeks prior to my ride-along with the Axon, John Szakach of Taser Int’l came to Whitewater PD with five Axon systems to train the officers on the equipment and familiarize them with the digital video evidence management system Taser has developed in conjunction with the Axon.

Initially, when Taser announced the Axon, I was a tad confused—camera systems from the electronic control device company? That’s right.

Supervising Sgt. Brian Uhl spearheaded the trial project and donned the unit during each shift. He says once the initial familiarizing with the system wore off, its use became second-nature. “I didn’t notice the unit while I was wearing it at all.” Switching from record to stand-by modes via tapping the chest-worn trigger was barely noticed while we were on patrol Nov. 11 last year. Frequently Uhl and I would ride up on a stop or incident to support the other officers and I almost missed his movement to begin record. This is largely in part to smart engineering by the Axon team.

An axon is a part of the nervous system that helps in the communication between the body and brain. Clever namesake. Thinking of the Axon units as nerve fibers is a good place to start when envisioning the system. The  AXON is a tactical networkable computer worn by first responders that combines advanced audio and video recording capabilities. It consists of an audio-video earpiece imager, speaker and microphone that integrate into existing radio communications through a standard 3.5 mm headphone connection, providing two way communications in addition to full audio-video recording from a head camera the size and weight of a standard Bluetooth headset.

The HeadCam can be worn over the ear like a standard Bluetooth headset courtesy of head brace that comes standard with the device, however the unit can also be mounted to glasses, helmets through the use of various accessories. It integrates with the radio earpiece and can capture color and low light infrared images. The Com Hub, which connects the HeadCam, radio and AXON Tactical Computer (ATC), contains the user controls – a standard push to talk button for radio controls and a single AXON event button that activates the system to start recording – is attached to the short of the officer while the ATC is stored away in dedicated pockets or on the belt or holster. The ATC is the brains of the system, running on the Linux Operating System the unit is responsible for video compression and storage, features a 10 hour rechargeable battery and 4.3-inch touchscreen display enabling playback and analysis of incident video.

After a day on the beat the Synapse Evidence Transfer Manager (ETM) handles the recorded data with officers placing the ATC into a cradle for recharging and uploading of data. Before the file is uploaded over a secure 128 bit encrypted transport link the AXON generates a digital fingerprint that verifies the original file hasn’t been altered. The data is uploaded via a broadband internet connection to EVIDENCE.com, which comprises two fully replicated, massively scalable, redundant, military-grade secure data centers with 24/7 reliability. The whole process promises a bulletproof chain of custody with the AXON evidence untouched by human hands so it cannot be deleted or altered.

Taser says the new AXON system not only increases officer efficiency by reducing report documentation, it would also be a boon to officers facing false allegations and complaints as they will be able to call on irrefutable video evidence to refute such claims. Taser also believes that such evidence will prove invaluable in the courtroom by giving jurors the ability to see exactly what an officer saw.

Apart from the influx of first-hand footage available to reality cop shows that could result from the use of systems like AXON, it's likely that "always-on" recording via wearable electronic devices will become common practice outside of law enforcement scenarios. Concepts like the neck-worn PC have captured plenty of attention in recent times and - even though lets face it, most of it is going to be mundane and boring - we’ll probably be recording just about everything we do in the not too distant future.

Burnsville Police Department in Minnesota was the first agency to sign onto the system long-term. In September 2010, the agency purchased Axon units and Evidence.com system access.

"The AXON system provides the police officers view of what is occurring," said Burnsville Police Chief Bob Hawkins. "It is cutting edge technology that will bolster our case preparation, reduce court costs and eliminate false accusations against our officers. This is revolutionary technology that we are extremely excited about."

"This has been a cooperative effort with a very progressive law enforcement agency throughout an extensive test and evaluation program," said Tom Smith, Chairman and founder of TASER International. "A core mission of our company is to protect truth and this product reflects our commitment to provide innovative technologies that ensure accountability through the collection and protection of digital evidence. We know that AXON(TM) and EVIDENCE.COM(TM) will serve as powerful tools to protect truth at the Burnsville Police Department, the first law enforcement agency in the state of Minnesota to deploy this end to end digital evidence solution. Our technology will act as a force-multiplier by providing quick access to key evidence, reducing the review time of false complaints, and providing the community enhanced transparency. We anticipate that these efficiencies will ultimately save taxpayer dollars in the city of Burnsville."

In 2011, several other agencies have purchased the units, but national use is still small. "AXON and EVIDENCE.COM are cornerstones to our mission to protect truth and reflect our commitment to provide innovative technologies that ensures accountability through the collection and protection of digital evidence," said Tom Smith, Chairman and founder of TASER International. "Hennepin Technical College is the second agency in Minnesota to purchase our system, and the Darlington Police and Quapaw Tribal Marshals Service represent the first sales of evidence capture and management platforms in their respective states. Our technology will act as a force-multiplier by providing quick access to key evidence, reducing the review time of false complaints, and providing the community enhanced transparency. We anticipate that these systems ultimately will save taxpayer dollars in these communities, and also will save officers and suspects alike from false and damaging allegations," concluded Smith.

From a management point of view, Lisa Otterbacher, lieutenant and current interim chief for Whitewater PD, says it’s a great tool for administrators. Not only does it save her officers time on-scene, the video is always sitting ready to be the objective eye should a community complaint arise, for use as evidence in cases, and can uniquely provide a training opportunity to correct missteps in the field or demo practical best practices.

“The training opportunity became so valuable,” Otterbacher says.

Although Whitewater has yet to secure funds to purchase the units, it hopes to buy the system as soon as possible. While the equipment cost is not outrageous, the storage fees for access and use to the Evidence.com part of the system are and Whitewater is not able to commit to the high annual charges.

But the units are certainly missed by Uhl and the other Whitewater staff. They’ve noted interviews take longer and instead of collecting statements once on-scene with the Axon recording, the department has had to revert back to its old procedures of collecting information on scene and bringing subjects back to the department where their stationary recording equipment can be used.

“We got used to the streamlined interview process and now each call takes a little longer,” Uhl notes. “[The Axon system] is definitely a gamechanger, and we’re hoping to get it back as soon as budget allows.”