In-Car Video: Compelling Evidence

We've all seen them. Heck, some of you may have even starred in them. "They" are the videos recorded by in-car systems during real-life arrests, high-speed chases and shoot outs. These videos provide late-night entertainment for millions of television viewers. More importantly, the technology provides compelling evidence that's often used to increase the number of convictions, eliminate false claims against law officers, enhance officer safety and improve training.

"On-board video is the best thing going," says Little Elm (Texas) Police Department Assistant Chief Ric Sadler. "It comes in handy on a daily basis." According to Sadler, even stop sign violators in Little Elm who come to court to fight a ticket are less confident of their innocence when confronted with video evidence of their misdeed.

Lawmakers in Texas are so convinced of the value of these recording devices that they've mandated their use in that state, Sadler says.

In-car systems have been deployed in law enforcement vehicles since the early 1980s. Those early units were adaptations of civilian-based analog video cassettes that produced high-quality images, but were not built to withstand the gritty, and sometimes grimy, world of law enforcement. Reusing videotapes produced unfortunate degradation and created cumbersome storage issues. If the evidence was requested, locating a specific event often involved a tedious search through hours of mind-numbing video.

Since then, digital systems specifically designed for use by law enforcement have replaced analog tapes, improving the quality of the images, storage capacity and functionality. Commercial (as opposed to consumer) grade devices are less likely to fail in the demanding environment of a police vehicle. Security and authorization features have been added to help prevent tampering or destruction of evidence by criminals inside the vehicles. Further, security enhancements, such as wireless transfers, help establish the authenticity of the data and maintain the chain of evidence. Because most of the new systems use compressed file formats, media storage requirements can be scaled back. A further advantage of digital data is that the system can automatically generate metadata tags that make it easier to

locate a specific event.

One of the most beneficial technological advances of a digital system is the pre-event recording feature. It captures not only the officer's actions, but also the events leading up to them. Some units, such as Safety Vision's PatrolRecorders, include the ability to record associated data, such as the officer's identification, department and radar speeds. Imbedded global positioning system (GPS) chips even record location data.

Event Recording
In most of the devices, the camera is always on, but it requires some sort of signal to trigger it to begin recording. The recording might start automatically when an officer flips on the light bar or siren, or an officer may activate it manually when he or she turns on the wireless microphone. Crash sensors that monitor rapid acceleration and deceleration also trigger most systems.

Whenever the device is activated, it automatically stores the video and audio for a set period of time usually 60 seconds preceding the event. This pre-event recording feature is handy for capturing the "probable cause" that led to the traffic stop, for example, allowing judges and juries the opportunity to put the officer's actions into context.

The recording ends either when the lights or siren has been turned off or when the officer manually stops the recording. Some systems include an indicator to alert the officer when the unit is still recording.

To get a clean audio recording, offi cers wear a microphone during their shift. The audio data are recorded on separate tracks from the video.

"The nice part of digital systems is that they will accept more than one microphone per digital frequency," Carbondale (Ill.) Police Department Interim Chief Jeff Grubbs says.

Most systems offer the option to install a rear-facing camera in addition to the front-facing unit. Prisoner and officer conduct can be recorded and used as evidence should a question arise regarding the events that transpired during transport. Microphones located inside the police car can be installed to record audio evidence.

Some agencies have found that visible cameras actually encourage prisoners to be on their best behavior, although other agencies prefer a more covert operation.

Because this camera is often required to work in a low-light environment, rear-facing cameras use infrared technology to improve image quality.

Previously, most recording devices were located in the trunk, concealed from prying eyes. However, it was less convenient for the officer to access the unit to transfer data. Today's equipment, while typically more compact, often resides within the vehicle's cabin.

Of course, locating available space inside a cruiser for all of the components of a recording system can be a challenge. The Carbondale PD found that since it already used Hub-Data911 units for its in-car computers, adding the video system from the same company allowed it to consolidate components. "We actually were able to remove equipment instead of add it. All control functions are manipulated though the [existing] touch screen system," Grubbs said. "That was the first time we have ever been able to say we removed equipment."

Data Transfer
One way to transfer digital data collected by in-car video systems is for the officer to swap out full CDs, DVDs, flash drives or even hard drives for an empty one. Each type of media has its advantages. For example, a great deal of data can be stored on a hard drive, enough for two 24-hour shifts. And flash drives can be used over and over with no image or audio file degradation.

Moreover, the exchange is easy, requiring little training. The Mt. Vernon (Ohio) Police Department uses the Safety Vision system that records to a compact, reusable flash drive. "The whole procedure, from putting the card in the camera to getting it to court, is very, very simple," says Mt. Vernon Capt. George Hartz.

Probably the biggest drawback is that when the media is full, it's full. The Little Elm (Texas) Police Department employs a DVD-based system from WatchGuard Video. This system alerts the officer when there's only 15 minutes of recording time left on the DVD. The hard drive acts as a backup should the DVD fill before the officer can exchange it for a clean one.

The disadvantage to all removable media is that it can be damaged in the exchange or fail. "Periodically we have had a bad disk," says Sadler. When that happens, the hard drive is once again used as a backup. The issue is to get the data off the hard drive as soon as possible to avoid overwriting files.

In both cases, the data are logged in just like any other piece of evidence.

The problem is, says Grubbs, "you are still managing individual media."

That's why the Carbondale Police Department purchased a wireless digital system from Hub-Data911 that auto matically uploads data whenever one of the vehicles is in range of the Wi-Fi enabled "hot spot" surrounding the station. It will continue to upload until all of the data have been transferred or the vehicle moves out of range.

The data are stored on a stand-alone server in a secure location. There's no logging in or checking out tapes, and, because each incident is archived by officer, time and incident, it can be easily referenced. In fact, using server-based software, command officers can review any of the video and audio data from earlier in the day on any properly equipped, networked desktop computer.

The new, wireless system replaced the department's original, high 8 mm videotape units. "The tape system, although it was the best on the market at the time, was unmanageable for anything other than incident-specific inquiries," says Grubbs. The new system allows supervisors to access specific incidents or shifts for officer performance reviews, something the cumbersome tape system did not readily allow. In the future, the department hopes to take advantage of streaming videos to view events in real time as they are occurring. "The biggest advantage is the back-end management of it," Grubbs said. Further, the officer never has to remember to do anything but return to the station. Because the officer is not hand delivering the data, chain-of-evidence issues disappear and concerns over possible damage to a CD, DVD, hard drive or flash drive are eliminated.

Upload times vary, depending on the resolution of the images, server speed and the number of other units in the area accessing the system at the same time. Larger agencies have avoided capacity issues by creating locations throughout the agency's district where secure wireless connections can occur.

When creating a wireless private network connection, data confidentiality is crucial both to maintain and to prove in a court of law. Various forms of security tunnels are commercially available and provide encryption beyond what is typically used for other commercial or private networks.

Installation, Training & Maintenance
All of the departments interviewed reported little-to-no problems with the installation of the in-car units. The only problem the Mt. Vernon Department experienced was a glare the rear-facing camera created when the infrared light hit the Plexiglas shield between the front and rear seats. Shifting the location of the camera mount cleared up the problem.

Hartz reports that officer training is simple and quick. At Mt. Vernon, in-house training took approximately an hour per shift.

Most systems require little in the way of maintenance, reducing on going costs. "For the money we've spent and as maintenance-free as it is, [WatchGuard Video] has been a good system for us," Sadler says. "Their customer service is excellent. Many times they are able to talk us through a problem and get it resolved."

Still, the units must be serviced and maintained by the department. Sadler suggests including your IT expert in the process when shopping for a system. Although today's digital files take less space than they did a few years ago, that person can help make sure there is adequate backend server capacity and backup.

Friend or Foe?
When the Mt. Vernon Police Department first implemented the in-car video system, not everyone was keen on all of the functions. The majority of the officers' concerns were about the GPS system that could be used to track the vehicles.

"Initially, there was some nervousness about it," Hartz says. "Cops by nature are a little suspicious of things. We had to do a little bit of PR with the officers."

Grubbs notes "in this day and age of technological advancements police officers need to assume they are always being recorded." He reports that more often than not, the in-car video system has shown the Carbondale officers to have acted properly in almost every situation. "In some cases, it has proven that officers didn't do or say what was alleged to have occurred," he says. Knowing that they are being recorded can increase officer awareness of how they are perceived. "These systems remind us as we go about our daily duties as police officers that we need to use a customer-service approach as we speak to people, and if we don't, we need to be held accountable for our actions," Grubbs says.

Sadler agrees. "Law enforcement is so transparent now. The public is going to take a picture, so it's no use to get paranoid," he says.

As the in-car recording systems become a regular part of everyday life, the officers are learning to rely on the technology. "They holler if it doesn't work," Sadler says of the 33 sworn members in the Little Elm department.

"From an officer safety, public relations and complaint-based standpoint for our officers and the department, the video system has proven to be our friend more than our enemy," Grubbs says. "It provides a real-life visual and audio record of what actually transpired."

In-Car Video Recording from Beginning to End
Making a sensible buying decision starts with understanding the process from beginning to end. Once the images and audio files have been captured, then what? How are the data transferred from the vehicle to a storage facility? How is the integrity of the chain of custody maintained? How and for how long will the data be stored? Who will have access to it?

In late 2008, the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) published the results of a three-year study to establish minimum performance standards for digital video systems. In addition, the 79-page document provides an objective guide to evaluating, purchasing and managing mobile video recorders.

The project, funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Justice Office of Science and Technology, field-tested various systems at multiple police agencies using a variety of vehicles. It examined operating conditions and quality of recordings and identified a standard for camera field-of-view during routine traffic stops to provide the best images of key objects, such as license plates and weapons.

The Digital Video Systems Advisory Panel formed to conduct the study consisted of law enforcement representatives, scientists and equipment manufacturers who volunteered to collaborate to help law enforcement agencies throughout the country make better decisions when purchasing and utilizing this technology.

IACP and the Advisory Panel recognized the value of in-car video systems, stating that a growing number of court cases have depended on video from mobile recorders to help "defend officers against charges of misconduct or, sadly, to speak for officers who are unable to speak for themselves."

The group readily acknowledges the evolutionary nature of the technology, stating that they intend the study to be "a living document, monitoring industry advancements and technology as it matures and advances."

Best Practices from the IACP

Here are just a few tips from the IACP Digital Video Systems Advisory Panel:


  • Ask for business and financial history.
  • Make sure all components of the system comply with Federal Communications Commission (FCC) standards.
  • Prior to the award, the agency can reserve the right to require any bidder provide complete video systems of the exact configuration offered for the purposes of evaluation to determine compliance with the specification requirements.


  • Hardware should be warranteed to ensure it's fit for its intended purpose for a minimum of one year.
  • Take into consideration down time of a vehicle placed out of service due to equipment failure.

Recording System Integrity

  • Officers should log in through a user identification and authentication mechanism provided by the recorder or by standing in front of the camera and recording the officer's image and voice.
  • Policies should require the officer to conduct an operational readiness test of the system prior to the beginning of a tour of duty.

Storage Systems

  • The Active and Archival Storage system should be located in a secured building in a room with restricted access.
  • Backup for this system should be located off site.
  • Access to and authentication of the storage system should be governed by the agency's policies and procedures and should include additional levels of user authentication prior to granting access.
  • Consider the shelf-life of the storage solution. For a Class 1 felony, can the digital asset be kept available for a minimum of 25 years and up to 75 years?


1. International Association of Chiefs of Police, Digital Video Systems Minimum Performance Specifications Document, Version 14, published Nov. 21, 2008, page v.

2. Ibid. Page iii.

In-Car Video Vendors

For more information on the in-car video vendors mentioned above, visit the following Web sites:

  • AMR Digital
  • Decatur Electronics
  • Digital Ally
  • Digital Safety Technologies, Inc.
  • Federal Signal
  • Hub-Data911
  • ICOP Digital
  • Kustom Signal
  • L-3 Mobile Vision
  • Martel Electronics
  • MPH Industries
  • Panasonic
  • Safety Vision
  • Watchguard


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In this photo taken Thursday, March 12, 2015, Seattle police officer Debra Pelich, right, wears a video camera on her eyeglasses as she talks with Alex Legesse before a small community gathering in Seattle. The camera is attached to a battery pack and controls on the officer's uniform. As police departments struggle with police body camera videos, the Seattle police, under the direction of new Chief Kathleen O'Toole, are voluntarily putting blurry, silent versions of the videos on YouTube, giving the curious a chance to see what they entail while also protecting the privacy of those depicted. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

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