All Chicago police officers on patrol will be wearing chest-mounted body cameras by the end of the year — but could gun-mounted cameras be next?
The answer may lie 1,200 miles south, in St. Petersburg, Florida.
The town, with a population of about 250,000, is the largest of a handful of municipalities around the country that are testing the devices. And their findings will be weighed by Chicago cops going forward.
“It’s something that we will monitor,” said Jonathan Lewin, who heads up the Chicago Police Department’s Bureau of Technical Services.
“But right now we’re very focused on finishing the body-worn camera deployment,” Lewin said. “Body cameras are more of a tested and proven solution.”
Gun-mounted cameras are designed to automatically start recording when a weapon is drawn from its holster and capture images of shootings that otherwise might be obscured by a chest-mounted camera.
One issue with body cameras: they’re manually activated, leaving room for human error, which has occurred in several high profile cases that did not record images of shootings.
St. Petersburg Assistant Police Chief Mike Kovacsev said cadets going through police academy training exercises have used gun-mounted cameras for several months this year. Kovacsev said he’s working with several vendors.
Police instructors encountered several issues when reviewing footage from the gun cameras, Kovacsev said. One problem was that the cameras didn’t work fast enough in a draw-and-shoot situation.
“The recording was not instantaneous. There was a slight delay in which the camera might not begin recording until the trigger was pulled,” he said.
Instructors also found the angle of the camera was limited. Kovacsev said the footage was too narrow and compared the problem to cellphone users being able to record only horizontal or vertical images.
“It didn’t capture as much as we would have liked,” he said. “It’s technology that I think will get where it needs to be, but it’s in its infancy.”
Manufacturers are working on improvements, Kovacsev added, and “one positive thing is that you actually get to see what the gun is pointing at.”
Gun cameras, should they ever come to fruition in Chicago, would represent a third electronic eyeball on law enforcement in addition to body cameras and vehicle dashboard cameras.
Drawbacks, Lewin said, could include the cost of pairing the gun cameras with a wide variety of weapons and holsters used by Chicago police officers, as well as integrating the program with body and dashboard camera systems.
“It would probably cost tens of millions,” Lewin said after a news conference last week to announce that the city is on track to outfit 8,200 Chicago cops with chest-mounted body cameras by year’s end.
Executives at two companies that make gun cameras, Viridian Weapon Technologies in Minneapolis and Centinel Solutions in Palm Beach, Florida, said several departments have tested or plan to test their devices, and many more have expressed interest.
There doesn’t appear to be any gun camera footage of a police shooting yet because police agencies have not formally approved use of the cameras and no shootings happened during trials.
Officials at larger police departments, including New York and Los Angeles, said they have no plans to use gun cameras.
The NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union both say gun cameras should not be used instead of body cameras.
“It shows the final mile of what happened,” said Max Kramer, CEO of Centinel, one of the firms offering the cameras.
“It potentially gives you peace of mind. This is just another tool to enhance that transparency.”
Brian Hedeen, president of Viridian, another manufacturer, said gun cameras can also save police departments money in video storage costs. Because gun cameras are not activated as much, they produce less than 1 percent of the data that body cameras do.
Gun-mounted cameras cost about $500 each.
The Chicago Police Department leases its body cameras from the Seattle-based law enforcement product company Axon for $65 a month, a fee that includes data storage. It’s a bundle deal. Each camera comes with a taser for an extra $13 a month.
The total yearly tab: $7.5 million.