Is It Time for Civilians to Start Wearing Their Own Body Cameras?


Police officers are more and more likely to be wearing body cameras designed to constantly monitor and record their interactions with the public. Is it time for the public to do the same? fstop123/Getty Images

These days, it's become increasingly common for police officers to record interactions with the public using cameras they wear on their bodies. While current numbers are difficult to come by, a 2015 survey found that 19 percent of police departments across the United States were using body cameras, and another 77 percent had plans to do so.

There's growing evidence that wearing body cams benefits both police and the people they deal with in the street, in part because research suggests that sides tend to behave with more restraint when they know they're being recorded. A 2015 study in the Journal of Quantitative Criminology, for example, found that after police in the city of Rialto, California, started wearing body cams, incidents in which officers used force dropped by around 60 percent, and the number of citizen complaints against them dropped by 88 percent. (A more recent study, though, suggests that the cams reduce use of force by both sides only when individual officer can't turn them on and off at their discretion.) Proponents say body cams can help protect police against false accusations of abuses — though in some instances, the footage also sometimes can lead to allegations of misconduct.

But would civilians themselves benefit from wearing cams, capturing whatever happens from their perspective as well? Wolfcom, a Los Angeles-based manufacturer of body cams worn by law enforcement officers, recently announced that it's developed a similarly sophisticated gadget that it plans to market to ordinary folks.

The new Venture cam, which weighs just 2.2 ounces, features a rotatable camera head and a multi-functional, clippable design so it can be used as a body cam, a mountable car cam, a flashlight cam with four bright LEDs, and even a livestream camera. What sets the Venture cam apart from many existing wearable personal cameras — GoPro actions cameras have been available for more than a decade, for instance — and other body camera systems is that Wolfcom started as a supplier for law enforcement, and is modifying those cameras and systems for the general public.

"The concept of a consumer camera has been in our minds for a while," says Wolfcom founder and president Peter Austin Onruang, via email. Over the years, he says, the company received hundreds of requests from the public to buy the cameras that Wolfcom sells to law enforcement, but was unable to sell directly to the public because the police cams could only be used with special software designed for police departments, making them unsuitable for consumers.

The company envisions the cams as a way for people to record and livestream what Onruang called "the best moments of his or her life," such as exciting mountain-biking or snowboarding adventures. But the same technology also could capture an encounter with police.

The ancient Roman satirical poet Juvenal is best known for his work "Satires." He coined many terms still used today, like "bread and circuses" and "Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?" The phrase often translated as "Who watches the watchmen?" has been interpreted as a critique of power without supervision.
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"People are already using cellphones to record their interactions and posting it all over YouTube," says Onruang. "The thing I noticed is that they continue holding their phones even when being placed under arrest or when struggling with an officer. I personally think it's dangerous to do so because in the course of a struggle with an officer in the dark, a backup officer might mistake a phone for a weapon."

Some of the Venture's advanced police-style features will show up in the civilian-targeting model; for instance, anti-video deactivation prevents the cam from being turned off accidentally if the switch is bumped during a physical altercation. Features like that could make it "a perfect camera to have at a protest," says Onruang. "Sadly, the violence in places like Charlottesville, Berkeley, and around the country is proving this to be true. We will be refocusing some of our marketing in those areas now."

Onruang offers some tips on how protesters could use cams effectively to document their point of view. "I think the best way to use Venture at these events is to wear Venture on the chest area with either the headset camera or clip-on camera POV attachments," he says. "Both POV cameras would provide point-of-view recording. That means that wherever the user is looking, that is what's being recorded. This is important if the user wants to be able to record a crime or an act of violence he or she is witnessing or to prove their innocence."

Additionally, adds Onruang, protesters could livestream video directly to a Facebook or YouTube account "to insure important video is immediately saved elsewhere."

The company's ongoing but already successful Indiegogo campaign suggests that there's a market for the basic $359 device, which can be equipped with accessories such as a night vision camera and a pinhole cam that can be concealed behind a button on clothing. It's projected to hit the market in February 2018.



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