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Digital cop cams will be watching

IBM develops a digital video recorder for police cars that will tape encounters from traffic stops and arrests and then store them in an easy-to-search database.

IBM has developed a digital recording system for police squad cars that will capture sound and video from traffic stops and arrests.

Designed to replace the videotape-based systems used by about 40 percent of police agencies in the United States, the new system can incorporate data from radar guns and information on location determined by a global positioning system.

"The compelling piece is not about digitizing video, but about making it easier to manage the video," said Gary Crowell, principal consultant with IBM Global Services in its public safety and security division.

The hardware and software package, to be unveiled Thursday, marks Big Blue's latest foray into video surveillance systems. The Armonk, N.Y.-based company announced in March that it would be entering the market for surveillance systems.

The digital-video system consists of a PC, a removable hard drive, and software to record the video. At the station, a large server with up to 3.5 terabytes of storage--about 5,000 hours worth of digital video--will hold all the video collected by police. Officers will check out a hard drive at the beginning of their shift, insert it into the PC in the squad car and then return the hard drive at the end of their shift. On average, a shift will produce two to four hours of video, Crowell said.

Seven U.S. law enforcement agencies have been running pilot projects of the product, and the Yakima, Wash., police department has signed on as the first customer. While the digital system costs as much as an analog one, it should save time and make it easier to find the video that pertains to a certain arrest.

"The cost of the unit right now is approximately the same cost as a ruggedized laptop and an analog system," Crowell said. "Your real savings lie in looking for video that the (district attorney) needs."

The Yakima police didn't have an analog videotape-based system, primarily because of the headaches that such a system would have caused, said Capt. Jeff Schneider. To find a tape that has been archived takes, on average, two or three hours, he said.

"You have to have a poor sap pressing a fast-forward video to find the right tape," he said.

With the IBM system, metatags, or digital labels, including the data, a scan of the driver's license and the location of the arrest or traffic stop can be used to search for the right video clip. Moreover, the digital recorder--basically a PC made tougher to withstand shocks--has a feature found in many TiVo-like personal video recorders: It continuously caches DVD-quality video.

With videotape systems, the recorder is typically turned on when the law-enforcement officer switches on a police car's flashers. With the digital video system, the two minutes to four minutes of video captured before an incident will be instantly written to the hard drive, essentially storing a glimpse into the past.

Such pre-event recording is important, Schneider said. "You have a violation that occurred, but what you capture now is the officer turning on his light, and that's only half the piece of the pie," he said. "Wouldn't it be nice if you could get the guy running the red light in the first place? That's what this system gives us."

The system also includes a way to protect the chain of custody, so the video evidence will be admissible in court. The recorder authenticates all the video to prevent changes, and it will have a checkout system to keep track of which officers have checked out which hard drives.

Still, the system will raise some sticky policy questions, said Lou Latham, a research analyst with business-tech research firm Gartner.

"It's a fair witness, as (science fiction writer Robert Heinlein) used to say," he said. "Everything is recorded--and there are ups and downs to that--but it's a powerful sociological tool."

Currently, not all states have laws regarding how long such video evidence should be kept. Yakima's Schneider said that ideally, the department would keep the evidence for three years. That's nearly impossible with videotape, he said, because the tapes would take up a great deal of physical storage space.

"This is going to be the subject of tons of legislation," said Gartner's Latham. "There are going to be political battles of high order. And in the end, rules will be put in place."