Common camcorders have been used as use-of-force cameras (UFC) or raid-cams because of their low price and their ability to refute false claims from offenders. These factors have made them a staple for today’s correctional agencies.
Use-of-force cameras have come a long way since their first use in the era of VHS. The evolution of raid-camera media formats from VHS, to 8mm, and now to new mass media storage formats has driven down the cost of securing officers while, at the same time, delivering a wider range of benefits. Agencies seeking to replace failing UFCs, need to be aware of the benefits and even some pitfalls of these new form factors.
Currently there are number of agencies still using 8mm based camcorders. Technically speaking, the 8mm format is an excellent format given its low video compression which better maintains the original video quality. However, the 8mm format is fraught with problems and some matters are becoming increasingly worse:
- Aging Technology – 8mm format is quickly being eliminated from the landscape of available technologies, a quick visit to any discount electronics provider is proof enough. That being said, available parts for repair and companies willing to service 8mm cameras are becoming fewer and fewer.
- Moving Parts – The sensitive moving parts make the 8mm camcorder non-conducive for the correctional environment. Officer priorities during a search or extraction don’t include being gentle with their gear. The wear and tear of everyday officer duties coupled with the moving parts of an 8mm camcorder the life of the unit short lived.
- Low Record and Battery Run-Time – The available record time of an 8mm tape is 60 to 120 minutes, and is considered very short. When events become prolonged, gathering video footage becomes near impossible. Beside a short record time, 8mm camcorders also suffer from very short run-times. The moving parts of the 8mm camcorder quickly consume battery power, again providing just one to two hours of run time.
- Size and Weight – No doubt, the size and weight of an 8mm camcorder is far superior to the old VHS camcorders, however in comparison with what is now available, they are a lead weight. New, smaller media formats allow manufacturers to design camcorders to fit in the palm of the hand – some even weigh only four ounces.
- Recurring Cost – The primary recurring costs associated with 8mm camcorders are the 8mm tapes themselves. 8mm tapes like all metal-particle-tape media can only be used a maximum of twenty-five times before serious degradation of video quality is experienced. As the supply of 8mm tapes dwindles, the cost goes up. If the plight of the VHS tape is any indication, very soon there will likely be just one or two niche manufacturers producing 8mm tapes, making prices soar.
Camcorders with new media can be broken into three major categories, hard drive based, disc based, and flash memory based devices. All of these new media formats deliver huge advantages over tape based camcorders; however some of these newer formats have drawbacks. Before purchasing, agencies should consider the following:
Hard Drive (HDD)
- Long Record Time – As a rule of thumb, video footage consumes around 1GB of memory per hour of recording. For example, a camcorder equipped with a 60GB hard drive can roughly hold up to 60 hours of recording.
- Easy and Fast Offload – Once footage is recorded, there is no need to remove media and undertake lengthy processes to dub to digital forms. Quickly connect to a computer via a USB cable, and the desired footage can easily be found and extracted.
- No Recurring Cost – Aside from normal repairs and maintenance, there is not a recurring cost. Hard drives can rewrite over previous files thousands of times without video degradation.
- Moving Parts – Unfortunately, hard drive based camcorders have a moving part…the hard drive itself. During operation, the hard drive is spinning at high RPMs, and like 8mm units, any moving parts is a recipe for failure in a corrections environment.
- Chain of custody – Chain of custody is often overlooked as an important aspect of evidence retrieval. Proving the proper chain of custody with hard drive based cameras is troublesome because there is no physical removable media to hand off. However, in most cases where there is other supporting evidence, such as eyewitness testimony, this can be a moot point.
Optical Disc (DVD)
- Record Time – Camcorders based on DVD disc media provide over four hours of record time. Although not as much as hard drive based units, this is still a vast improvement over tape media.
- Easy and Fast Offload – Once recording is completed and the DVD ejected, the media is ready to be submitted as evidence.
- Chain of Custody – Since the footage is already recorded to a physical object (DVD), and little or no processing is required, the evidence chain of custody is a synch. The only possible draw back may be that the evidence on the DVD has already been converted into a common file type for easy playback, and during the conversion process, digital artifacts to prove authenticity may have been removed. However as with hard drive based units, if there is other supporting evidence in the chain of custody this can be a non-issue.
- Recurring Cost – In nearly every instance, the DVD’s will be used only before either being submitted for evidence or discarded.
- Aging Media – It is predicted that DVD’s over the next few years will become obsolete. The reasoning for this is two-fold. First, other media forms, such as Blue-Ray, are providing better resolution and compression. Second, it is continually easier to transfer large amount of digital data. More agencies are modernizing facilities with better network infrastructure and utilizing services with more available bandwidth to incorporate data transfer.
- Moving Parts – The major drawback to DVD based camcorders is moving parts. Any abnormal amount of shock will cause the DVD to skip. During recording a skip could very easily corrupt the entire DVD rendering all footage useless.
- Record Time – Flash memory based camcorders almost always use SD (Secure Digital) media. SD cards are available with capacities up to 64GB which means you can get up to 64 hours of video evidence.
- Easy and Fast Offload – Once recording is completed and the SD card is removed, evidence is ready to be viewed on any PC. Also, the camcorder can be treated like a HDD based unit and connected to a computer via a USB cable.
- Chain of Custody – Like DVD based units, an SD card is a physical object that can be placed into evidence. Additionally SD card manufacturers, such as SanDisk, provide evidence grade SD cards with enhanced features to ensure evidence integrity.
- No Moving Parts / Shock Resistance – One of the most important features of flash memory cameras is their immunity to shock. Using the mobile video market and the environment in which the equipment operates as a reference point, flash memory video recorders are always the preference to ensure a long and reliable life. In a corrections environment where gear safety is low and officer safety is high on the priority list, this benefit is crucial to ensure the camera is able to deliver evidence throughout engagements and reduce the amount of camcorders replaced over the years.
- Long Battery Life – No moving parts also means that the unit requires less power. In some cases, the run-time can double those of comparable models using other media.
- None – For a corrections agency seeking a new raid camera, hands-down one with flash memory is the way to go.
The Tactical Alternative
The development of flash memory technology has increased the development and use of video security technology in covert law enforcement and tactical operations. These devices have become ultra-small in comparison to camcorders and are packed with features that make them ideal in a tactical environment such as corrections.
When a corrections agency is ready to select their next raid camera, they should consider a camera that offers the following features:
- Officers' Perspective and Safety – The most important benefits for corrections agencies, are officer safety and the documentation of activities from the officers’ perspective. Cameras that can be helmet mounted enable both hands to be free and allow the officer to protect themselves and others, even while evidence is being gathered. Secondly, head mounted cameras capture whatever the officer views from their perspective, capturing evidence as the officer moves about the scene.
- Rugged, Waterproof Construction – Ensure that the camera has a durable, rugged metal construction that can withstand rigorous activities during searches and extractions. Waterproofing is also useful so that the camera is impervious to fluids and outdoor operations.
- Easy Operation – Gloves? No Problem – Make sure that the camera is designed for users who are wearing gloves, and that camera operation is simple and the controls are easy to find.
- Handheld Use – As an alternative, the camera should be able to be used in a handheld fashion to match existing department practices.
- Long Run-Time – A long run-time of three hours on a single charge should be a requirement for use of force cameras.
- Wide Field of View – Most camcorders offer a field of view of 90° or less, so look for a camera that delivers at least 135°. Having to worry less about where the camera is orientated is, again, another feature that keeps officers attention on controlling situations and keeping everyone involved safe.
If you have any questions, comments, would like further information and/or a demonstration of the HMCAM2, please feel to contact the Supercircuits law enforcement division.