Those of us that think TASERs are one of the most important tools for police since soft body armor have been focusing on the wrong issues. Yes, they're a great help in reducing claims of excessive force and the like, but using TASERs to enhance officer safety is an even more compelling reason to have them.
If your department has TASERs, and approximately one-half of the agencies in the U.S. do, then you've already provided officers with a valuable option for dealing with many of the most difficult offenders out there today. And, as any street cop can tell you, it's those very situations that are most likely to result in injuries to officers, suspects, and bystanders. When that happens, it sure would be great to have a video of the actual encounter in order to disprove the claims.
But there's another reason to have a video record--officer safety. Giving officers the ability to review and debrief the encounter is one of the most effective ways to learn and reinforce critical safety constructs. Professions as widely varied as fighter pilots and professional golfers have known this for years. That's why golfers often study video of their swings, and why pilots are merciless in their analysis of their own video-taped performance.
Enter the TASER Cam
Late last year, TASER International, Inc. introduced the TASER Cam, rolling it out at the Fall IACP Conference in Florida. When I first saw it at the TASER booth, my reaction was, "Wow, what a great idea!" quickly followed by, "Wow, it's expensive ($400)," and, "Wow, it makes the TASER a lot bigger." After waiting a few months to actually get my hands on one, I still think it's a great idea, and the cost and size issues, while still there, have receded in comparison to the benefits that the TASER Cam will obviously bring to an officer's toolbox.
Installation of the TASER Cam
First things first: The TASER Cam only works in the Model X26™ TASER; there is no equivalent for the older Advanced TASER Model M26™. As unfortunate as that it is, there are many technological reasons why this is so, and one very practical one--if you think the X26 looks big with a TASER Cam added, imagine the size of an M26 in the same configuration!
The TASER Cam is constructed of sonic-welded, high impact polymer, just like the TASER itself. In shape it resembles an oversize version of some pistol magazines that have a curved piece on the front of the base plate.
The TASER Cam is set up as a replacement for the X26's digital power magazine (DPM), or battery pack. In order to install it, the user depresses the DPM release button, slides out the DPM, and inserts the TASER Cam in its place (care must be taken to push hard when seating the TASER Cam until the DPM release button pops out with an audible click--this is due to a slightly thicker gasket that assures a good seal between the TASER Cam and the TASER).
Once the unit has been inserted into the TASER, software in the TASER Cam will automatically update, or program, the TASER's software to Version 18. While this is occurring, a "P" will be illuminated on the CID or Central Information Display, at the back of the TASER. The user must make sure not to turn the TASER on, or to remove the TASER Cam from the TASER during this programming cycle, as doing so can corrupt the software, necessitating reprogramming at the factory.
After a few seconds, the programming finishes, and the installation is complete.
How it Works
The TASER Cam will hold approximately 1.5 hours of video with audio, after which it will begin recording over the previously recorded material--rather like a continuous loop of tape. The video is captured in black and white at 10 frames per second (fps). These specs were used to get more recording time, and because black and white renders much more clearly in low light conditions. Even so, on playback, the video is amazingly clear and watchable.
The TASER Cam is activated when the TASER's switch (sometimes referred to as the "safety") is turned to the "on" or "fire" position. The unit will continue to record whatever the TASER is pointed at until either the switch is turned off, or the battery runs down.
The camera lens, microphone and an infrared (IR) emitter are located at the bottom of the TASER Cam, in the front--sort of where the toes would be if the TASER Cam was a foot. The lens is in the middle, with the microphone on one side and the IR emitter on the other. When the light level is low, the unit switches immediately to IR.
One of the early criticisms of the TASER Cam was that it might be easy for an officer to either intentionally or unintentionally block the camera with his or her hands or fingers. This is especially true if the officer utilizes a two-handed grip, as most have been taught in firearms training. The first of these possibilities is a management/disciplinary problem that TASER International can't help with, but the second is likely to be an inadvertent result of stress and training. If the lens is blocked, the officer will be see the CID display begin flashing the number "88", and the laser sight (if its turned on) will begin to flash as well. Once the lens is uncovered, the flashing stops.
A quick note is in order here: when the TASER is first turned on, the CID reads the remaining battery charge for approximately five seconds. If the lens is covered during this time, the TASER can still be fired, but the warning flashes will not occur.
The TASER Cam comes with software on CD that will facilitate downloading the TASER to a PC. A USB cable with a proprietary plug at the TASER end is also included. When the TASER is downloaded in this way, the firing data and the video/audio are all downloaded, and are synchronized to make it easy to work with the information. TASER International took the unusual step of breaking up the downloaded audio and video into several files, in order to keep the files small. At the same time these files are downloaded, a Windows Media Player "playlist" file is created, so that when the files are played back in Windows Media Player, they will run one after the other in the correct order. There is, however, a noticeable "glitch" when each separate file starts. A creative plaintiff's attorney could try to make a case that the video might have been edited. An enhancement to the software is being considered for the next release that would allow the entire incident video to be downloaded as one file.
So, What about Officer Safety?
How many times have you watched a dash-cam video where the action moves off camera? Oftentimes you can still hear the audio, due to the officer's body mic, unless the action moves too far from the patrol vehicle, then nothing. Having the recorder built into the TASER gives an officer the capability to record bad guys' antisocial behavior anywhere.
Officers will need to be trained in the use of the TASER Cam. Hand placement should be addressed, as well as the fact that the unit is on and recording anytime the TASER's safety switch is turned to the fire position.
A standard policy of reviewing incidents where TASERs are used should already be in place. Particularly instructive videos should then be earmarked for officers to review from a safety perspective. These videos could also be used in training classes.
What about that Cost and Size Thing?
The cost is easy to address, at least in part. Where the existing DPM in your TASER is a throwaway battery, the TASER Cam is rechargeable, thereby negating the need to buy new DPMs. A fully charged TASER Cam is rated at 50 five-second cycles. Recharging can be done from a PC through the included USB cable, or with the included AC power adapter.
Size is about the only drawback. However, adding a TASER Cam really only gets you back to about the same size as an M26 Advanced TASER. One consolation is that officers can carry a spare TASER cartridge in the butt of the TASER Cam, although this will add a little more to the size. On balance, that's probably a small price to pay for the increased protection that a TASER Cam can provide, from both an officer safety and liability reduction standpoint.
Stay safe, and wear your vest!