Taser International released a new product this week that will automatically activate nearby police body cameras when an officer draws a gun.
A device called Signal Sidearm from Taser division Axon, which dominates the market for police body cameras, is a sensor designed to attach to most standard gun holsters. Whenever an officer’s firearm is removed, the device starts the officer’s body camera, as well as any other camera within 30 feet. Most Axon cameras already feature a 30-second buffer, which saves footage preceding the equipment’s activation.
“Gun drawn, camera on,” reads the tagline for the product, which goes on sale later this year.
As police body cameras become more commonplace, devices like this could reduce the potential for user error. Although body cameras are supposed to capture an objective record of police encounters, they can only do that when officers remember to turn them on. This can be especially difficult in tense or rapidly developing situations.
“When law enforcement officers must draw a weapon, the last thing they should worry about is their technology,” Rick Smith, CEO and co-founder of Taser, said in a statement.
Police body cameras have emerged as a rare point of agreement between law enforcement and activists pushing for transparency and accountability amid high-profile police killings of civilians, who disproportionately are black men. But public confidence in the devices has been tested by failures to record some controversial confrontations, including fatal shootings.
Questions swirled last year when police in Charlotte, North Carolina, shot and killed Keith Lamont Scott, a 43-year-old black man. An officer who responded was equipped with a body camera, though he reportedly didn’t switch it on until after shots were fired, leaving a critical gap.
Most police departments still have weak or nonexistent disciplinary rules for officers who fail to abide by body camera policies, which may make it harder to ensure that the devices are used correctly. Officers in many departments are still getting used to cameras, however, and some lapses may simply be legitimate mistakes or accidents.
But if law enforcement doesn’t show commitment to gathering the clearest possible documentation of an incident, body cameras won’t serve their purpose, civil rights groups say. They believe it’s fair to be skeptical in cases where officers have failed to properly activate their video equipment.
Last year, the ACLU and University of California, Berkeley, School of Law published a report encouraging state courts to instruct juries to disregard testimony given by an officer deemed to have deliberately attempted to conceal the truth by not recording an incident, or by tampering with footage. If the jury were to conclude that an officer’s failure to record was unreasonable or negligent ― but not malicious ― the court would instruct the jury to devalue that officer’s testimony and infer that the video would have been beneficial to the defendant.
It’s a roundabout legal solution for an emerging problem. If technology can help ensure officers have fewer opportunities to make mistakes ― and fewer excuses to violate policy ― police body cameras could become a more reliable tool for fostering public trust.
For now, Signal Sidearm will only help with incidents that involve officers drawing a weapon.