Public Advocate James at a body-worn camera press conference (photo: Rob Abruzzese)
NEW YORK—Last week, NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton unveiled the two body cameras that would be used in a pilot program by his department: the VieVu LE3 and the Axon Flex by TASER. During the press conference, two police officers modeled the devices and the commissioner showed a short video taken during a traffic stop to display what the recordings would look like.
While the demonstration was informative, I found myself asking many questions that could really only be answered by using the device: questions around what it feels like to wear one all day and how easy they are to operate.
Public Advocate Letitia James has been a staunch supporter of the use of body-worn cameras by police officers, issuing a report in August on the benefits. As part of the research for this report and body cameras in general, the public advocate's office was given several models to test (James demonstrated these during a press conference of her own).
James' office allowed me to take the VieVu LE3 for a test run to attempt answering some of my questions by wearing it for a walk across the Brooklyn Bridge, on the subway, and through Times Square.
Below are specs on the camera, two video clips taken by the VieVu, and an outline of my experience using the device.
Techs and Specs
Note: click to skip the product specs and jump to the Test Run section, with sample video
Size: For those old enough to remember, the VieVu LE3 reminds me of a pager in size (3" x 2.1" x .85" without clip), weight (2.8 oz without clip), and feel. The device comes with two clip-backs and one pin-back to allow the wearer to attach the device to clothing.
Video: The video resolution is HD quality at 1280x720 and records at 30 frames per second. The camera does not have night vision or infrared - features left off because the camera is intended to capture as close to exactly what the officer can see as possible, according to a spokesperson for VieVu. The makers wanted to avoid the possibility of an occurrence like having an officer view a night vision-enabled video showing a suspect reaching for something (like a weapon), and then changing their story to match the video when there was no way they could have seen it happen that way during the actual encounter.
Durability: The LE3, which is made by former cops for cops, offers military grade protection. It is rated non-submersible waterproof (IPX5) meaning it can withstand rain or snow, but cannot be submerged in liquid (i.e. if an officer dives into a pool, it will likely malfunction). The LE3 can handle temperatures from -4 F to 122 F.
According to the spec sheet the LE3 can handle being dropped 10 feet onto a hard surface. I dropped it a few times from about three feet, but since the unit costs $899, I wasn't willing to test the limits (James' office did not give any warnings about testing the durability).
Battery: The lithium-ion battery life is five hours recording at SD quality and three hours at HD quality with a standby life of 72 hours. When the LE3 is empty, it takes three hours to fully charge. I had no issues with the battery running out during my 4 hour test.
Storage: Each camera has 16 GB of non-removable raw storage; and storage capacity of 12 hours at SD quality video storage and six hours at HD quality video. The video can be loaded to a cloud storage service (which VieVu offers) or to on-site storage.
Software: VieVu uses it's own proprietary software called Veripatrol which must be downloaded before the LE3 is ready to use. There is no software disk (its a direct download from the web), which is nice for smaller computers that don't have disk drives. But, the software is not compatible with Mac computers (which I learned the hard way, losing a day of reporting). This shouldn't be an issue for the NYPD because of the City's contract with Microsoft.
The software is fairly easy to use. It has an admin feature which is used to assign a camera to an officer. A separate program is used to download the videos. Without the training that would surely come with use of these cameras and programs, I hit several snags unlikely to be problems for the NYPD. It's worth noting, though, that VieVu IT support is on the West Coast, so when I called at roughly 10 a.m., it was not yet open.
Theft: The VieVu will only work with the software, the cable, and a password, so if the unit is lost or stolen, the system is designed so that the video can't be downloaded to just any computer.
VieVu products (not just the LE3) are currently being used by 4,000 police agencies in 16 countries, according to its website.
-The Oakland Police Department uses LE2 and LE3 models. Started in 2009 with a pilot program of 20, as of 2013, all Oakland PD officers are required to use them (for a total of 559 units). Policy dictates officers are to record during citizen contact, arrests or detentions, evaluation for psychiatric detention, vehicle pursuit, serving a warrant, conducting a search, or transporting a prisoner.
-The Houston Police Department uses the LE3 model. The HPD pilot program began with 100 cameras in December of 2013. Its policy dictates officers must activate the camera any time they are in a law enforcement interaction and are required to leave it on until the incident has concluded. By phone, HPD Captain Michael Skillern said there was pushback from officers at first, but after a few months, "the attitude had turned 180 degrees and they were happy to have them." He added that when HPD was looking to move cameras to different units, some officers personally called him and asked them not to take their cameras away.
Gotham Gazette Test Run
I performed two test runs: a jaunt across the Brooklyn Bridge and a subway ride into a wander through Times Square. On the day I tested the device, it was partly cloudy, in the low 70s, and did not rain.
The instructions say, "the ideal position to attach the camera is level with the sternum but it will vary depending on user." I don't own a tie, which is where the officer at the NYPD press conference displayed the LE3, so I pinned the camera level with my sternum to a heavy shirt for the walk across the Brooklyn Bridge.
A related note on NYPD dress code: police officers are not required to wear ties during the summer with their short sleeve shirts. If wearing long sleeve shirts, they must wear a tie, unless they have a turtleneck underneath. If wearing a sweater over a shirt, a tie is mandatory, however the tie is worn underneath the sweater, thus not allowing the officer to clip the camera to it. Officers should be able to clip the camera to their tie or to their shirt if not wearing a tie, though a sweater could pose a problem.
The LE3 is incredibly easy to use. When ready to record, one simply flips down the lens cover. The cover is easy enough to pull down with one finger while on the go, but the cover also has enough tension that it won't just fall down while on the run - important functionality for officers expected to begin recording as a chase or other abrupt encounter occurs.
There is a roughly two-second delay before a small green light begins to blink on the top of the device to signal recording has begun. I found it was sometimes difficult to see the light blinking in the sunlight, and it was a partly cloudy day (my sunglasses may have had something to do with this too though).
As the video below shows, much of what I recorded with the LE3 pinned to my shirt is almost unwatchable. In the video it looks like the camera must have been swinging like a pendulum, however it was moving only slightly from left to right as I walked. I was not wearing a bulletproof vest like NYPD officers are required to do, so it is unclear if that vest would have provided a flatter, more stable surface behind the camera.
Captain Skillern of the Houston Police Department said of the 100 cameras in their pilot program, they had no issues with the video quality from cameras placed on the sternums of female officers versus males.
For members of the NYPD, the LE3 will blend in well with their black uniforms. I had on a bright blue shirt and a black pager-like device pinned to the middle of my chest and only about a quarter of people I walked by seemed to look at it. However, when the device was on, I did notice more people looking my way - a trend I attribute to the fact the camera lens is outlined in a bright green circle, making it much more noticeable.
I did not perform any tests at night, so it is unclear how noticeable the blinking green light would be or how the quality of the video would turn out. The camera does not have night vision or infrared, which will will likely lead to a specific policy regarding recording in those situations.
As the video shows, when my interview subject was sitting down, I could not capture him in the frame of my shot. I didn't have him stand or move my camera as I may normally have done to get the best shot as a journalist because I wanted to represent (as best I could) what an interaction between a police officer and a citizen might be like. Training officers regarding positioning to capture the best footage could address certain limitations.
For the second test I changed out the pin-back for the clip back (which was very easy, but did require a small philips head screwdriver). Wearing a backpack this time, I clipped the LE3 to the loop it has on a shoulder strap and pulled the strap as close to the center of my chest as possible. I knew it would provide the more stable video the camera is capable of that my first use did not show.
The second clip shows much more stable video except when I tested it running up and down stairs. I wasn't chasing a suspect but rather trying to catch a train. As you can see in the clip, the video is pretty shaky. When going down stairs, the camera focuses on the ceiling, making the camera seemingly unable to catch video of a suspect.
Despite the limitations, I was impressed with the quality of the camera, particularly its ability to react to changes in lighting. This was evident when I went underground and transitioned from sunlight to fluorescent. It was also evident during an interview when the sun was directly behind my subject. The lens was able to adjust to ensure the subject's face could be seen.
A key element of what these cameras can capture is sound and the audio on the LE3 is superb. I was amazed at what I was able to pick up from these clips. At one point I followed a police officer with a dog from roughly 10-15 feet behind. When viewing the video I could hear the jingle of the dog's collar and leash.
From the video, I could hear every single conversation from the people walking by me. The construction and street noise didn't overpower, but instead blended seamlessly with conversations, and any other noise.
In some places the wind was blowing fairly strongly, but had no effect on the audio. The wind was picked up, but did not prohibit hearing the interview audio.
Since I have never walked the streets as a police officer it is hard for me to definitively say if this will work for the men and women of the NYPD. I didn't test how well the LE3 would stay on during a physical altercation. While there's no doubt an officer can easily turn the camera on in a tense situation, it is unclear how useful the video would be of an officer using this camera model and chasing a suspect. But, physical altercations and chases are not the bulk of officer interactions.
As with every piece of technology, the LE3 has limitations; more fully learning them and finding ways around them will surely be essential to the NYPD pilot program.
image via VieVu
by Kristen Meriwether, Gotham Gazette