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New gun cameras offer a 'cops-eye' view of policing

Plainclothes officer holds gun with device attached.
Source: Centinel Solutions
Plainclothes officer holds gun with device attached.

Police departments are testing new technology that's taking aim at the estimated $1 billion annual U.S. market for law enforcement camera hardware and software — gun-mounted cameras.

Body cameras became popular after police shot dead an unarmed teenager in Ferguson, MO in 2014 but the devices have received mixed reviews from civil rights leaders, who have questioned the body camera program policies of some police departments, and law enforcement leaders, who have complained that their line of sight is easily blocked.

Cameras on guns provide a better point of view than body-worn cameras, since they are usually aimed directly at the suspect and are less likely to be blocked when an officer shields their torso behind something, say proponents of the technology such as Centinel Solutions, one of the first companies to deliver the devices to police departments for testing.

Centinel CEO Max Kramer set out to build a "more intelligent" system following conversations with law enforcement while studying at New York University in 2014. Centinel's camera fits with the vast majority of gun holsters and its software complies with law enforcement protocols for access and logging files.

"We're in the business of having an unbiased tool which can solve one of the most contentious problems in the U.S. right now," said Kramer.

Centinel's camera mounts under the barrel of the gun and starts rolling as soon as a weapon is drawn. Video is encrypted and can be stored locally or in the cloud using Amazon's AWS Government Cloud infrastructure. The drawing of a weapon also triggers an alert, sent via a mobile app, to a desktop portal manned by an officer back at a police office.

"We love that function because it can send a signal to the sergeant to let them know that he or she just pulled their weapon and it also tells you exactly where they are so you can start sending units to the location," said Anthony Holloway, Chief of Police with the St. Petersburg Police Department in Florida, which is testing the technology.

Holloway's training unit is evaluating the devices along with body-worn cameras. So far, his team and union members prefer the gun cameras, he said.

"The camera's actually on the end of the gun, so it's showing you exactly what I am seeing, I don't have to worry about trying to position my body," he said.

The next steps will be to test the devices on the street, to develop a policy on storing the footage incorporating community feedback and — if they decide to move forward — ask the Mayor and City Council for a budget.

Though the devices themselves cost roughly the same as body cameras — several hundred dollars apiece — the video transmission and storage costs are substantially lower, since the cameras are recording much less footage, said Holloway. That means far less video for police departments to transfer, store and protect.

Taser — which makes a variety of cameras and software for law enforcement agencies — estimates that software and services account for $700 million of the $1 billion annual U.S. camera hardware and software market. Centinel believes its solution could save police departments hundreds of thousands of dollars per year.

Gun with Centinel Solutions camera.
Source: Centinel Solutions
Gun with Centinel Solutions camera.

Holloway also hopes to improve community relations with the adoption of new technology.

Last year, there were 205 incidents in which officers with the St. Petersburg Police Department drew their weapons. The city is the 5th largest in Florida and had 20 homicides in 2015. The department already uses dash cameras in traffic vehicles, transport vans and in a gang unit.

"It's all about building trust," Holloway said.

"People want to hold police officers accountable and know that the way force was used was appropriate," said Ron Brooks, a former California cop with 38 years' experience who now runs consulting firm Brooks Bawden and is advising Centinel on marketing strategy.

Police released key portions of dash and body camera video following the fatal shooting of Keith Lamont Smith on Sept. 20 in Charlotte, North Carolina but none of the videos showed whether Scott was armed. The officer who fired the fatal shots — and was found to have acted lawfully — was not wearing a camera, though three other officers at the scene were.

"Centinel's cameras would have shown what happened," said Brooks.

Privacy and security experts have warned about the possibility of police systems getting hacked, evidence tampering, over-policing in certain communities and a future in which facial recognition technology might be added onto police cameras.

Clear policies around how the information is collected, transmitted, stored and used are extremely important to ensure that these new technologies are used to protect communities and not turned against them, said Chris Calabrese, vice president for for policy at the Center for Democracy and Technology.

But most cops welcome some kind of camera technology, said Brooks. Officers out on patrol never know when they will have to pull out a weapon — they may be doing a routine traffic stop or responding to a report of domestic violence when things suddenly escalate.

"These events are so rapid and stressful that, oftentimes, it's hard for people to even remember what happened," he said. "I have never been able to say how many rounds I have shot — when someone's trying to kill you all you're really worried about is trying to make it home."