Digital Patrol - Technology and Communications -

Digital Patrol

What do you need in a digital camera for law enforcement work?



Steve Ashley | From the September/October 2005 Issue Friday, September 30, 2005

Digital images are everywhere. From Web pages to billboards, digital photography is fast replacing film as a means for capturing, storing and printing images for two primary reasons: cost effectiveness and ease of use. For these same reasons, law enforcement agencies are jumping on board the digital express.

Packedwithsophisticatedelectronics, these new cameras are essentially computers with attached lenses. Theyaregenerallyself-contained, incorporating a flash unit and a wide-angle/zoom lens into a sturdy body that usually includes a built-in protection system for the lens. The new cameras are getting smaller and smaller; many are pocket sized. They’re easy to handle, with multiple preconfigured settings geared to different types of shots, and are effectively “point-and-shoot,” although most allow you to make some adjustments in order to produce better photos. They use easily rechargeable, durable batteries.

Digital cameras record image information into a digital file and save it into memory or onto a removable memory card. You can easily transfer these files to a computer for manipulation or storage; therefore, they take up very little storage space.

And here’s the big advantage: You can view your pictures immediately after you take them. If they’re not right or poor quality, you can delete them from the memory and take another shot.* You can take as many or as few shots as you like, without worrying about running out of film or wasting any. And you never have to worry about your photos not coming out again.

If your department wants to go digital, consider the following on digital camera design, zoom, flash, LCD, resolution and memory options before you complete a purchase order.


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Once upon a time, a significant disparity existed between the cameras patrol officers carried and used and the fancier ones investigators and evidence technicians used. Of course, that’s still possible since you can (and many departments will) buy very sophisticated digital camera systems. In fact, there will always be a need for high-end photo equipment in law enforcement, and special needs for certain types of equipment, such as underwater cameras.

However, digital technology has advanced to the point that even the cameras the rank-and-file officers will use on the street can produce excellent photos. Smaller departments may not need anything fancier.

What should you look for when outfitting your officers with cameras? There are a few things that you should insist on, and a few others would be nice, if your budget allows.

First and foremost, look for a simple design and rugged construction. Avoid flimsy feeling cameras, or those with a lot of protruding levers and knobs or switches. Additionally, a digital camera will feature ports for connecting an AC-adapter and a cable to download your images to a computer. Choose a model with sturdy rubber covers or plugs for these ports in order to keep out lint, moisture and dirt.Therubbercoversorplugs should attach to the camera; if they’re separate pieces, you know they’ll get lost quickly.

Choose a camera that has a zoom lens (most do). Ignore any specifications referring to a digital zoom. All a digital zoom does is enlarge the pixels in whatever image the camera sees, which will quickly make any zoomed image jaggedy and blurry. Focus instead on the specs of the optical zoom, which actually moves lens elements like a traditional zoom lens, enlarging the image before it’s processed by the camera’s electronics. Don’t accept anything less than a 3x zoom, which is pretty standard. (By the way, if you’re buying a digital video camera of any type, this same caveat applies. Ignore specs regarding “600x digital zoom” or the like, and opt for the best optical zoom specs you can afford.)

Many, but not all, digital cameras incorporate a design that retracts and covers the lens when the camera is off, thereby protecting it from damage and the elements. This is an absolute requirement for a patrol camera.

Your camera must include a built-in flash, and if you can afford a little higher-end camera, buy one with a hot-shoe or other means for connecting an external flash. The very nature of the small flashes built into digital cameras makes them useless for any serious photography, especially over longer distances.


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Steve AshleySteve Ashley is a retired police officer, and an active trainer and risk manager. Contact him at


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