Body-Worn Surveillance Overview

Published Feb 29, 2012 00:00 AM
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In the past year, body worn video system use has increased. Many police departments are adopting this to protect against false allegations and potential litigation. They are seen as an answer to increased public surveillance of police actions via smartphone cameras, which may or may not provide video of a whole incident. In this note, we examine the types of body-worn systems available as well as factors and limitations affecting their use.


Body-worn surveillance systems come in a variety of forms, but there are two fundamental types:

  • Remote camera: Many body-worn surveillance systems consist of a recorder, meant to be worn on the belt or in a pocket, with a remote-mount camera. The camera may be worn on the shirt, glasses, hat brim, or other location. These systems generally have longer battery life, to last through an entire shift, and may integrate to other gear, such as the officer's radio.
  • All-in-One: Some compact units contain both camera and recorder in one. These are normally meant to be clipped to the front of the shirt, or worn in the ear like a bluetooth headset. Due to their small size, battery life may be reduced. These types of devices are also less flexible in their placement than systems using remote-mounted cameras.

Resolution from the majority of body-worn systems is currently limited to standard definition, though 720p [link no longer available] and 1080p options are becoming more common. Video and audio are recorded, typically in MPEG-4 or H.264 format, to on-board or SD card flash memory. Recordings are archived to PC at the end of a shift, for evidentiary purposes. Additionally, Taser recently announced a new model in their body-worn video line which automatically uploads footage to their cloud-based service,

Some systems integrate to other gear worn by the officer, as well. Most commonly, this integration is to police radio, so that communications to and from the officer are recorded, in addition to audio from subjects. Some systems replace the epaulet mic of a body-worn radio for this purpose. Finally, GPS location tracking may be integrated to the recorder, to show the exact location of recorded incidents.

Pricing on body-worn video systems varies widely. Systems such as the all-in-one VieVu LE2 can be purchased for under $1,000 [link no longer available], while a full Taser Axon system with GPS, radio integration, and 720p camera costs thousands of dollars [link no longer available].

Camera Location

The location of the camera is a key decision in body-worn systems. Head-mounted is generally preferred, as it allows the camera to see what the officer is seeing. While all-in one shirt-worn systems are meant to be easy, they are limited in that officers are trained not to stand square to a suspect, but stand perpendicular, with their gun side farthest away. This means that cameras worn on the torso would be facing away from subjects much of the time, greatly limiting their usefulness, and potentially missing video of key incidents. Readers may see this article by a California sheriff's deputy [link no longer available], detailing his experiences with body-worn video, for more information.


Remembering to Start:The most practical limitation of body-worn video is not technical, but an issue of use.  Most body-worn recorders may be turned off and on at will. In the case of short-lived battery-powered types, it is required, as the battery will not last through an entire shift. This introduces the possibility that an officer may fail to start recording a critical incident, unintentionally or intentionally. This cannot be avoided, however, as recorders must have privacy functions to prevent recording during breaks.

Forensic Only: Currently, body-worn video is intended as a forensic tool only. No live viewing is possible. In most cases, this is likely not a drawback, as live viewing of an officer's day-to-day patrols and routine stops would provide little benefit. In the case of some incidents, such as raids or crisis situations, however, command staff may like to have access to live video from officers in the field to allow them to see conditions live.

Maintenance: The final limitation we see with body-worn systems is that they present another platform which must be deployed and maintained, as there is typically no integration to other video systems. This means that police may be supporting multiple video systems, as cameras in the streets, in-car cameras, body-worn cameras, and interview systems may all be distinct platforms. Moves are being made to bring mobile video to VMS systems, with multiple manufacturers announcing mobile applications which turn smartphones into surveillance cameras, but these options likely lack the features of application-specific body-worn video.

Cost Justification

The most commonly cited justification for using body-worn video is eliminating false claims against officers. If a 100 officer department spends $500 - $3,000 per officer, this would be $50,000 to $300,000. However, if eliminate a handful of false claims / litigation, it may pay for itself.

Objections to Use

The number one objection to use of officer video is that it may cause the officer to hesitate in the field, for fear of scrutiny later. Opponents say this hesitation could lead to officer fatalities in situations which turn violent. Proponents of body-worn video, including some civil rights groups, believe that this scrutiny is positive. With a record of an officer's actions in the field, compliance to law and department policy can be measured and assured, and used as a performance metric. Without this, only eyewitness testimony is available, which is more easily disputed.