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article / June 15, 2023

How Axon Body 3 cameras helped affirm the public’s faith in Virginia Beach PD

Case Study: Virginia Beach PD

The Virginia Beach PD prides itself on having a strong relationship with its community. However, that relationship was tested in March 2021, when one of its officers failed to activate their body camera during an officer-involved shooting. In the aftermath of that incident, Captain Billy Zelms and the rest of the Virginia Beach police force vowed to reexamine their policies and equipment to best serve their community and avoid “he said/she said” situations. When a similar incident occurred in 2022, the outcome was very different – thanks to a suite of Axon hardware and the infrastructure to use all of that technology together.

The Challenge

According to Captain Zelms, the Virginia Beach Police Department began searching for new camera vendors in 2017. After careful research, Axon emerged as the most logical partner in 2018. As Zelms put it, “It's a foregone conclusion that Axon is an industry leader today for their technology and their capabilities that quite frankly most can't come close to matching."

However, as law enforcement professionals know, administrative processes can move slowly. “We didn’t really implement the solution in full for several years,” Zelms said. The delay was further exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, during which Zelms joined the project team responsible for camera deployment. Though the Virginia Beach PD had originally intended to outfit 450 officers with body-worn cameras, they weren’t fully in place yet as of early 2021 – and internal policies guiding their usage were still under review.

“We ended up encountering an officer-involved shooting in March of 2021,” Zelms recalled. “The officer had to take immediate action.” Unfortunately, the incident was not captured on the officer’s body-worn camera, leading to a “significant public outcry.” That’s when Virginia Beach PD Chief Paul Neudigate realized the department needed to quickly finalize their policies and expand the scope of the body-worn camera program.

The Solution

In July 2021, the Virginia Beach PD integrated Axon’s Officer Safety Plan department-wide. Because it’s a cost-effective way to equip agencies with up-to-date technology while providing the requisite training, the department didn’t have to choose which initiatives to prioritize — everything they needed was included in the contract with Axon. The Virginia Beach PD made widespread use of Axon’s technology, including:

●  Axon Fleet 3: The Fleet 3 camera was installed in all 216 of the Virginia Beach PD’s marked patrol vehicles for “an additional layer of accountability and transparency,” according to Virginia Beach PD Chief Neudigate.

●  Axon Automated License Plate Reader (ALPR): One of the most important features of the Fleet 3, ALPR technology automatically scans license plates and alerts officers to stolen vehicles, stolen license plates, missing persons, and active warrants associated with a vehicle.

●  Axon Body 3: The latest iteration of Axon’s body-worn cameras was issued to all sworn personnel. The Body 3 is a significant upgrade over the previous generation of BWC hardware, offering up to 18 hours of audio-free video recall in the event of a missed activation.

●  Axon Signal Sidearm: Installed on all duty holsters in the department, the Signal Sidearm allows for wireless activation of Axon’s Body 3 and Fleet 3 cameras. This reduces the likelihood of missed camera activations and allows officers to focus on the situation at hand instead of making sure their cameras are recording.

According to Zelms, “The transition was almost seamless.” It wasn’t hard to get buy-in from the rest of the force, who generally understood the value and security that body-worn cameras offered law enforcement officials. While finally having cameras on all officers and all vehicles was an incredible accomplishment, Zelms said that “It's all of it being able to work together” on the Axon platform that elevated the technology to new heights.

The Results

The Virginia Beach PD’s training and equipment were put to the test once more in December 2022. ALPR technology alerted an on-duty officer to a vehicle that had been reported stolen the previous month, leading the officer to confront the vehicle’s occupants. This led to an altercation in which one suspect attempted to grab a gun concealed in their waistband while another pointed a weapon at the officer. As Chief Neudigate put it during the ensuing press conference, “We almost had an officer executed for doing his job, protecting the City of Virginia Beach.”

Instead, the officer’s training and instincts kicked in. He fatally shot the man pointing a gun at him, then detained the other passenger. The entire incident was recorded automatically, leaving little room for doubt over how the events transpired.

“If it wasn't for the signal side arm, it’s very likely nothing would have been recorded because the officer had to act quickly given the circumstances they were presented with,” Zelms explained. “Having the technology that we currently possess allowed us to capture the event as it unfolded and demonstrate to the public how our officer’s actions were both necessary and justified.”

The successful deployment of Axon’s network and technology erased any lingering doubts about whether the improvements the Virginia Beach PD had made since the 2021 incident were worth the effort. “All of the investments that we made with Axon were done to avoid failing to record the most critical of events,” Zelms said. “Axon has been a fantastic partner.”

Interested in learning more about how Axon can equip law enforcement officials with the tools, technology, and training to handle difficult situations like officer-involved shootings? Get in touch with our team.