'Occupy' protests send police shopping for wearable cop cams

In his lengthy career with the Oakland Police Department, Steve Lovell encountered plenty of cases where in-field video footage could have come in handy.

"I've worked a lot of protests in my 20-year career, and all too often, the protesters were videotaping us but we weren't videotaping them," Lovell, now managing director for body-worn video provider Vievu, says. "They were throwing rocks at us and we didn't do anything to pick up the evidence or record that the evidence happened. We were just saying that it was happening."

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SLIDESHOW: High-tech police tools

Now, with protests from the Occupy Wall Street movement causing ripple effects across the country, Vievu is seeing a spike in requests for its wearable video cameras, Lovell says.

The Seattle-based company's devices and the accompanying software, Veripatrol, are currently deployed in 2,000 agencies in eight different countries. The cameras are developed according to standards set by the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), and are designed to capture activity within a 71-degree field of vision. The cameras, which clip onto the shirt, are designed to be so unobtrusive that officers don't even know they're wearing them.

The three-inch by two-inch by 0.75-inch camera weighs about 3.5 ounces, making it roughly twice the size and weight of an iPod Nano. With 4GB of storage, Vievu estimates that the cameras can capture up to four hours of video, which is compressed in the MPEG-4 file format and made compatible for Windows versions XP through 7.

Cop-cams adopted by NASA security

Security police at NASA's Kennedy Space Center have been wearing Vievu's cameras for about a year and a half, says Larry Kerley, support operations commander for security contractor Chenega Security and Support Solutions at the center. The cameras have proven valuable enough to warrant the purchase of additional devices, Kerley says, which will bring the total to 21 in use at the station.

Kerley says the cameras have been especially helpful in resolving complaints against his officers. The only problem he's encountered with the cameras involves how the officers wear them.

"The main problem is I have to educate them on which way to put the camera on because I get tired of turning my monitor upside down when they put it on upside down," Kerley says.

The power of video to settle misconduct disputes or provide convincing evidence in important cases has prompted a call for wider use of the technology. A 2011 study on video evidence conducted by the University of Central Florida concluded that "body-worn cameras should be standard equipment for all officers in units that have high instances of citizen contact and self-initiated calls."

Subhead: Hard sell

However, convincing police agencies to use body-worn cameras hasn't always been easy, Lovell says. Five years ago, when the company was founded, Lovell says Vievu had to convince skeptics who weren't nearly as familiar with cellphone video cameras as they are today.

To this day, regulations make the process difficult. Vievu has on more than one occasion seen customers denied the right to use the cameras even after having already purchased them, Lovell says. Those "dated" laws are beginning to change across the country, Lovell says, making it easier to sell their flagship product.

Last week, the company released its new cloud-based video storage service. Even though many police agencies are clamoring for a cloud system to reduce costs, some are reluctant to trust a private company's cloud as a virtual evidence room for data that is essential to their high-profile cases and, in the event of police misconduct allegations, the well-being of their officers.

Kerley, for example, is adamant about retaining direct control over the video evidence produced on his officers' cameras, and says he trusts the external hard drive on which he stores evidence more than a cloud solution offered by Vievu or anyone else.

"I just have this situation where I know who has access to mine," Kerley says. "If it's out there someplace else, I don't know who has access to it."

Lovell says Vievu has had the cloud in mind since it first began working on its Veripatrol software in 2009, once again adhering to IACP standards for video management and distribution. In discussions with its customer base, Vievu found that data isolation and security were two of the top concerns associated with using a cloud storage service.

The company selected Amazon's cloud, which Lovell says was chosen based on its certificates and accreditation, and employed the 256-bit advanced encryption standard to ensure security. The files will be subjected to a full sweep and protected with a digital signature. Video content can be viewed and copied by those given permission, but can only be deleted by the administrator designated by each agency.

Mike Fergus, a program manager in the technology center at the IACP who has decades of experience working with video evidence, says cloud storage "is certainly the trend going forward" and even cites cases where those managing evidence "love the system." However, he says some important details still need to be ironed out.

One is the disconnect between the expectations of the legal side and the practices of IT professionals tasked with managing their electronic data. Lovell says in most cases, "administrators are typically IT professionals," and that Vievu has seen "a real big uptick lately in some of the mid-sized agencies with third-party consulting IT services." This can cause problems because, as Fergus points out, "video files tend to be very large, and IT people don't like large [files], they like small," and often tend to compress video files to save costs on storage.

"The problem with that is, when you compress them, you're throwing away bits of information in those files, and you can never recover it," Fergus says. "Once it's gone, it's gone."

Another problem involves budgeting, Fergus says. Vievu's website advertises its latest camera for $899.95, while its cloud service costs $10 per month per device. In many cases, police agencies are given federal grant money to purchase a new set of body-worn cameras, and if they don't take the monthly subscription fee into account when applying for that grant, they can easily fall short.

"When that federal grant money is gone, if you can't pay that subscription fee, who owns all of your evidence?" Fergus says.

Indeed, ownership and access to information can cause jurisdictional headaches as well. If state or federal investigators need access to video evidence captured by a local police officer, they may need to apply for warrants or file other formal requests dictated by strict regulations on access to information, Fergus says. This isn't the fault of the developers behind these cloud services, Fergus says, "it's just that sometimes there are skeptical city attorneys or purchasing agents who are very uneasy about letting evidence get outside of control of the agency."

Overall, the outlook for the cloud in the law enforcement sector is improving, Fergus says. Security, for example, has long been a point of concern for cloud skeptics in any organization that manages sensitive data. He pointed to the police department in Cincinnati, which hosts data created by electronic license plate readers for about 80 agencies across three states. An analysis of the private cloud solution that manages this data found that it "had much higher security standards than the city government did," Fergus says.

Several organizations aim to help usher the law enforcement world into the information age, including the Law Enforcement and Emergency Services Video Association and the FBI's Scientific Working Group on Imaging Technology. The IACP does its part, too, sending experts like Fergus around to give training on everything from device use to digital records management practices, capping it all off with the annual Law Enforcement Information Management training conference.

"Once agencies see somebody else has done it and has worked through a lot of the issues and the problems, there's sort of a template to follow and other agencies are more comfortable to follow," he says. "It's being the first one out there on untested ground that always makes people nervous."

Colin Neagle covers emerging technologies, privacy and enterprise mobility for Network World. Follow him on Twitter https://twitter.com/#!/ntwrkwrldneagle and keep up with the Microsoft, Cisco and Open Source community blogs. Colin's email address is cneagle@nww.com.

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