SOMERS, WISCONSIN, UNITED STATES, 2022
What started as a pilot test of Axis Communications’ body worn camera system ultimately became permanent for the University of Wisconsin–Parkside Police Department, due to its tremendous ease of use and efficiency.
When Axis Communications wanted to pilot test its new body worn video cameras, it was a natural step for the video solutions company to tap the expertise of University of Wisconsin–Parkside (UW–P). The law enforcement department at this 700-acre university campus in Somers, Wis., was an early adopter of body worn cameras, having implemented their first system in 2006.
“We were probably one of the first, maybe, five departments in the state of Wisconsin to use body worn cameras many years ago and we’ve used a couple of different products over those years,” says James Heller, chief of police at UW–P.
As an experienced user of body worn systems, Heller appreciated getting an invitation to meet with Axis engineers to talk about what UW–P liked and didn’t like about the products it had used in the past. “We said we would do the pilot because we’d had a long experience with body worn cameras that we could probably give some pretty good input on,” Heller says. In addition, the university already had a good working relationship with Axis, because it was using Axis network video cameras in its campus buildings and Axis onboard cameras in its police vehicles.
UNIVERSITY POLICE NEEDED AN EFFICIENT SOLUTION
Before being approached by Axis to pilot a new body worn system, UW-P Police Department was encountering challenges with the system they were using at the time. The cost of hardware updates was becoming cost prohibitive, and the clips used to secure the cameras to uniforms kept breaking. These frustrations were becoming a sore spot for the university’s seven state-certified, full-time patrol officers, two supervisors, and several part-time officers.
But the primary complaint UW–P police had with their system at the time was that it was just too time-consuming to use, Heller says. Each officer following their shift had to physically plug their camera into a desktop computer and wait for a half-hour or longer for their video to download; they then had to personally label it. “It was very time-consuming. There were no docks, like we have now with the Axis cameras,” Heller says.
The campus is home to about 4,500 students, of which up to 1,000 reside in university housing. Police duties are split between regular security building-check functions and campus calls, as well as traffic and security at special events. In addition, the UW–P Police Department backs up the Kenosha (Wis.) County Sheriff’s Department when needed.
PUTTING A NEW BODY WORN SYSTEM INTO ACTION
The body worn solution that UW–P tested for Axis — and later implemented permanently — includes eight body worn cameras, the 8-bay docking station, and the system controller. Officers use one of two types of Axis clips to attach cameras to their tactical vests: an alligator clip or a MOLLE clip.
The system also includes the AXIS Camera Station S20 series, which provides the means for video storage and management. Paul McCullough, police sergeant, UW–P, uses the AXIS Camera Station software for tasks that range from assigning cameras to officers to pulling clips to share with other parties. “As an administrator, that’s my toolbox there,” McCullough says.
The need to share footage from the body worn cameras occurs regularly. A traffic accident at which UW–P police were called to assist the Kenosha Sheriff’s Department took an unexpected turn when a subject ran from the scene and became tangled in a barbed wire fence. UW–P later handed off the camera footage to the sheriff’s department and it ultimately was used to document the arrival of officers and medical units, as well as the subject’s actions while he was being freed.
The cameras have a pre-buffer feature that assists officers in case they need video from the seconds leading up to an event before turning on their camera. Because the body worn camera is always “on” with its lens open, it can capture a pre-designated span of footage that occurred before an officer pressed the record button. UW–P has its cameras set to 30 seconds of pre-buffer. One officer describes the pre-buffer feature as “beyond important for critical incidents.”
Documenting traffic accidents as well as traffic-related stops is a chief use for the body worn system at UW–P. Because the campus is located in a rural county, some of these stops take place in very dark conditions. But the low-light capabilities of the cameras document each scene visibly, such as one serious accident involving a vehicle and a pedestrian on a dark university road.
In daily use, when officers begin their shift, they take the camera that has been assigned to them from the docking station and attach it to their vest — and it’s ready to use. Officers work 12-hour shifts and the battery accommodates that time-frame. For longer operation, Heller says the department added chargers to their patrol vehicles so in case an officer gets held over, they can charge the camera while they’re in the car. At the end of their shift, officers set their body worn cameras in the dock. They automatically begin charging while seamlessly offloading the video.
“The biggest compliment I get from the officers is the ease of downloading the videos and charging the body worn camera on a dock,” McCullough says. “It is more user friendly and much faster than the method of our previous body camera vendor. Officers also have reported that they like being able to watch their own videos after an incident/contact. They can use the videos as a tool in writing their reports, as well as learning to improve their interactions with the public.”
The body worn system has an educational purpose, too. “As an administrator/supervisor, I have been able to use the videos of officers in the field to identify ‘teaching moments’ to improve their performance and address their training needs,” McCullough says.
Plus, the body worn solution gives the UW–P Police Department flexibility. While investigating a sexual assault on campus, officers needed to interview a large number of witnesses. However, the department only has one interview room with one stationary camera. The body worn cameras gave officers the option to use other areas of the police facility for interviewing people and recording their statements.
In addition to how rugged the cameras are, UW–P police appreciate the system’s user friendliness, pre-buffer feature, and its capability for automatic activation through event triggers. Staff also appreciate the ability to mute the microphone to have private side conversations; this deactivates the microphone while still recording video.
The open platform nature of the solution also makes it simple to integrate with other vendors’ systems, such as an unholstering sensor. “I think it’s important that the system isn’t tied down to a proprietary format, where nothing can be linked into it. We like the flexibility of the Axis body worn cameras that allow us the option of further integration,” Heller notes.
McCullough, who administers the system, finds it easy to locate the video clips that he needs based on dispatch day/time and officer. Pulling video footage by date and time is a much easier way to catalog the videos, compared with the department’s previous body worn solution, he says. He shares clips with the district attorney’s (DA) office, with other jurisdictions, or sometimes with another department on campus such as the dean of students. The police department uses a separate, secure server for evidentiary videos that are shared with the DA.
In one such case, camera footage of an officer finding an abandoned vehicle in one of the university’s athletic parking lots proved useful to a neighboring agency. The vehicle had been used in a drive-by shooting that resulted in a homicide on the previous night in that jurisdiction. The footage was used to document exactly how the vehicle was found and the status of evidence that was recovered inside, which proved useful to the other agencies.
The UW–P Police Department is very pleased with how efficient the Axis Body Worn Solution is to use, as well as the support it has received from Axis. What started as a test of the system became a permanent solution for the UW–P Police Department.
“We’re definitely pleased with the superior video quality and the additional features that we get with these cameras. I like the ease of navigation as a supervisor for going through the video. I just think it’s very user friendly,” Heller concurs. “Overall, Axis has just been great to work with.”