There have been a number of high profile incidents in recent years in which officers failed to activate their cameras until after the most critical moments have passed. For instance, in July 2017 Justine Diamond was shot in Minneapolis after she called 911 to report a possible sexual assault.  In September 2016, an unarmed man was shot after crashing his motorcycle into the passenger side of a police cruiser.These incidents received nationwide coverage and resulted in widespread protest. They significantly affected the trust between law enforcement and their communities nationwide.
Automatic camera initiation, or auto-trigger technology, is one tool that agencies can use to ensure that body-worn camera (BWC) systems are activated when needed. It is important to note that this is just one tool available for this purpose; it is not the only tool. Recent news coverage suggests that some agencies using this technology are pleased with it. Other agencies have pursued alternate methods to ensure cameras are activated when needed.
What is auto-trigger technology? How does it work? What considerations are important when deciding whether to adopt auto-trigger technology?
Auto-trigger technology automatically activates one or more BWCs, relying on several different keying mechanisms. An auto-trigger mechanism typically activates a BWC automatically based on certain actions, including the following:
- When an officer pulls a weapon from a holster
- When a cruiser moves over a specific speed
- When a cruiser runs with lights or siren
- When multiple BWC cameras are within close proximity to an activated camera
- When a cruiser door is opened
- When an officer is running
- When an officer issues specific verbal commands
- When an officer enters a specific geographic area
These systems often require sensors placed or built into the cruiser, holster, or camera. They may also require a special addition to the basic vendor-provided services. Some vendors include them in their basic pricing; others charge extra for the sensors and service.
BWC auto-trigger technology is not new. At least six vendors now offer it; some have done so for nearly five years.
A quick scan of the news stories around these auto-trigger systems indicates that those agencies that have them seem to be happy with them. The agencies are reasonably confident that the automatic triggers, when combined with agency policies, will ensure that BWC video is captured for almost every critical incident. In a recent news article, Austin, Texas, Police Commander Brent Dupre stated, “When an officer exits the vehicle, that trigger sends a ”Bluetooth burst” and will actually activate any camera that is within range. Rest assured that if you’re sitting inside the car or stepping out of your door, it is going to activate that camera and any camera around it.” Dupre said the department was interested in having officers wear BWCs to provide more accountability and make the public feel more comfortable. Another large metropolitan law enforcement agency stated in a recent discussion that it wants the auto-triggers to ensure that all critical incidents have BWC video. It wanted to eliminate the possibility of human error affecting such recordings.
Other agencies have different perspectives. In talking with representatives from a few law enforcement agencies that have BWC and decided not to purchase the auto-trigger technologies, several explanations emerged. Some stated that the technology is not necessary in their agency. They felt that their policies were strong enough to ensure that each officer would turn on the camera for any incident requiring BWC video. Several said that they felt that the presence of the auto-triggers could make the officers complacent, causing them to rely on the triggers to do what they should be doing themselves. They believe that with proper training and practice, self-initiating the BWC should be part of each officer’s “muscle memory.”
As an alternative to auto-triggers, at least two large urban law enforcement agencies under the 2015 Bureau of Justice Assistance BWC grant program have initiated dispatcher messaging as part of the standard dispatch scripts to ensure that the officer does initiate the BWC (i.e., the dispatcher reminds the officer one or more times to activate the BWC). They believe that these messages boost policy compliance while also building muscle memory to ensure that the BWC is recording when required.
Some agencies are quick to point to risks or problems with auto-trigger technology. Primarily, they are wary of instances when an auto-trigger device on one camera triggers a number of other cameras unnecessarily, including the following:
- All cameras in a station activating as an officer drives by on the way to a call for service
- Cameras activating in nearby restaurants as officers have lunch, or even while using the restroom
- Cameras activating during meetings with confidential informants that happen to be close enough to an unrelated call for service
Additionally, if an officer is not aware that their camera was auto-triggered, he or she could take the following incorrect actions:
- Accidentally turn the camera off, in an attempt to manually activate the camera
- Leave the camera activated for an extended period, filming random events that will take up significant storage space and eventually need to be deleted
Overall, there is no one right answer to whether to use auto-trigger technology. A number of factors can be weighed in the decision, including the following:
- Specific triggers and technology offered by the BWC vendor
- The effectiveness of agency policy
- Community input
- Agency risk profile, particularly instances of previous critical events that were not captured
- What will actually work for your agency?
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Elliot Harkavy has nearly 30 years’ experience in homeland security, strategic planning, market strategy, competitive intelligence, IT planning and operations improvement. Mr. Harkavy spent 4 years with the Washington Metropolitan Council of Governments (MWCOG) coordinating law enforcement across the National Capital Region (NCR) and 8 years with the Department of Homeland Security as part of FEMA’s Operations directorate and Office of Disability Integration and Coordination. In his capacity with MWCOG, he worked with over 1700 public safety officials across the NCR to identify, plan for, respond to and recover from public safety threats. He convened over 27 regional public safety committees, subcommittees and working groups, including the Regional Police Chiefs and Corrections Chiefs Committees and subcommittees addressing training, special operations units, technologies, including Communications, Body Worn Cameras, Drones and numerous other issues central to modern law enforcement.
This project was supported by Grant No. 2015-DE-BX-K002 awarded by the Bureau of Justice Assistance. The Bureau of Justice Assistance is a component of the Department of Justice's Office of Justice Programs, which also includes the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the National Institute of Justice, the Office of Juvenile Justiceand Delinquency Prevention, the Office for Victims of Crime, and the SMART Office. Points of view or opinions in this document are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.
Body-Worn Camera Auto-Triggering Technologies