San Jose police are trying out a new headset recording device in a pilot program designed to assist law enforcement by capturing audio and video in its entirety from the officer’s perspective.
The pilot program is slated to last up to 90 days and may revolutionize the way law enforcement interacts with its citizenry.
Eighteen officers from special operations, general patrol and plain clothes units were assigned the new AXON recording units. Taser International of Scottsdale, Arizona, manufactures the AXON devices and is picking up the tab. Each unit costs $1,700, with a $99 per month service fee for each unit.
AXON devices record both audio and video from the officer’s perspective, providing police with a complete record of the officer’s handling of any given situation. According to the San Jose Mercury News, local minority groups have accused San Jose police of frequently escalating ordinary investigations into violent confrontations.
The AXON system is comprised of three components: the camera unit worn over the ear like a Bluetooth headpiece, the control unit and the computer unit mounted on a belt.
The unit operates at all times in a “buffer mode,” recording information every 30 to 60 seconds (depending on the default setting), then recycles the data. When an officer responds to an event, he or she must activate the “record mode,” which captures the previous 30 seconds of buffered video and begins recording audio and video until the officer stops recording. The recorded event can be witnessed in real time back at the station, which can benefit the patrolman while pursuing a criminal. Once recorded, the officer cannot edit or erase the data. In those instances when an officer is interviewing a juvenile or a rape victim, or simply needs to use the restroom facility, the units are set to “Privacy” mode and record no data.
At the end of a shift, the officer downloads the data to a central server, where it can be viewed by the officer and other members of the police department.
The Bay Area pilot program was conceived about 18 months ago when Taser officials approached San Jose Police Chief Robert Davis at a police chiefs conference, said Steve Tuttle, Taser’s spokesperson. Davis was amenable to the concept and agreed to the limited pilot program. “This is the way of the future,” Davis said at a December 18 news conference announcing the AXON program.
Under Davis, San Jose became one of the first police departments in the country to outfit all officers with Taser’s more famous restraint devices. Consequently, the police chief was familiar with the company and its reputation for devising cutting-edge technology for law enforcement.
Long-time Internet technology and privacy expert Lauren Weinstein voiced concern that the AXON device could prove problematic in the hands of a bad cop. Since the officer must intentionally activate the record mode, one who doesn’t want his actions recorded may avoid detection by simply not turning on the system.
San Jose patrol officer Bill Pender admits it is possible to abuse the system, but affirms that all officers participating in the pilot program have been told to “record everything.” Aside from mild discomfort in adjusting to wearing the headpiece, Pender thinks the AXON system is “fantastic.”
Officer Pender is grateful to have the AXON system recording his public actions, as the system now provides San Jose police with a complete record of any interaction with a citizen. Last May, a cell phone video showed officers apparently beating a San Jose State University student from Vietnam. Police are concerned that private cell phone recordings seldom captures the entire event and usually show police reacting to a situation with a forceful response.
“I’m very excited about the technology,” said Pender, a 15-year veteran of San Jose’s police force. “People are well aware we have the cameras on. It makes them act differently; they know they’re on camera. It helps us out that way.”
Weinstein’s other concern with the AXON system deals with privacy. He wonders what will happen when police respond to a domestic disturbance call and enter a private residence with AXON recording everything the officer sees. “Could you take that video and hand it to someone in the backroom and say ‘Go through it with a fine tooth comb'” with the aim of finding additional evidence not found in the officer’s original investigation?
Officer Pender says the police are obligated under state law to request permission before recording a “privileged conversation.” But in other instances involving investigations which are nonprivileged conversations, police are authorized to record the situation without prior permission. These same parameters apply now to the AXON video recording system.
Weinstein remains curious how long the video will be accessible and who may ultimately use it for their benefit. A spokesperson for the San Jose police, officer Jermaine Thomas, could not verify whether a defense attorney, for instance, would have access to the video recording of his client’s alleged criminal conduct. Thomas indicated it would depend on whether the video was introduced as evidence by the district attorney.
According to Taser spokesperson Tuttle, “Over the next 60 to 90 days San Jose police will review and evaluate the AXON pilot program.”
Taser is preparing to sign pilot program agreements with other major US city police departments, government agencies as well as foreign law enforcement agencies. Their plan is to officially roll out the AXON product line around mid-2010. To date, the company has sold 450,000 Taser brand devices to 15,0000 law enforcement agencies in more than 40 countries, as well as 200,000 units to the general public since 1994.