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article / February 12, 2024

How Axon Body 4 cameras with Watch Me technology improved safety

Empowering officers in real-time: How Axon Body 4 cameras with Watch Me technology improved safety and efficiency at St. Cloud Police Department

In policing, having a second set of eyes is often essential. When an officer knows that someone’s got their six, it gives them a greater sense of confidence and safety for whatever they may face on a call. Having backup can promote better decision-making, reduce risk, resolve situations faster and contribute to the overall well-being of law enforcement officers, and the consequences of not having backup can in many cases be serious. However, in light of staffing and resource shortages in policing, and evolving challenges in the community, physical backup on scene is not always a possibility.

SUPPORT IN THE MOMENT THROUGH SITUATIONAL AWARENESS

Recognizing the importance of having a second set of eyes even when additional resources cannot be physically present, Axon introduced the first truly connected camera, Axon Body 3, in 2019. With connectivity provided by Axon Respond for live officer location maps, alerts, and streaming, Axon Body 3 immediately empowered agencies with situational awareness to make more informed decisions, allowing them to more safely and effectively resolve situations.

Axon body-worn cameras have evolved since then, with expanded connected capabilities for the Axon Body 4, the next-generation camera that was released in 2023. One such capability is Watch Me, a button on the Body 4 camera that empowers first responders to remotely request that their supervisor watch over them through a live stream as they’re on-scene, as opposed to the supervisors initiating the live stream themselves. Regardless of their reasoning for wanting a second set of eyes, Watch Me allows officers to ask for help when they feel they need it and provides a clear signal to command staff that their officers are seeking additional support.

CHALLENGES IN EMBRACING REAL-TIME TECHNOLOGY

St. Cloud Police Department in Minnesota was one of the first agencies to test and implement the Watch Me feature as a beta trial partner for Axon Body 4. This decision to implement live capabilities was a point of departure for them at the time. Though they had the ability to live stream through the Axon Body 3 cameras they had rolled out to their agency in 2021, they had originally been hesitant to utilize the live capabilities, in which an authorized member of supervisory command staff can choose to start a live stream to an officer’s recording camera and view the stream from their Respond desktop or mobile app to help provide visibility and support in the moment. The safety and efficiency benefits of connected capabilities were clear, but putting them into practice was an area of uncertainty — the agency and police union had concerns about building a policy that would put the right safeguards in place for the agency’s needs, and officers had lingering concerns that their supervisors would be able to dial in at any time to observe them.

Dialogue and alignment on the opportunities of Axon body cameras’ live capabilities with staff and the union may have helped the agency reach resolution, suggests Lt. Jason Burke, but with a number of competing priorities, the agency decided to hold off on implementing supervisor-initiated live streaming.

However, by offering the ability for officers to send a clear message that they needed support with the push of a button, the agency found that Watch Me was a different story. When St. Cloud was asked to be beta trial partners for the Axon Body 4 camera, officers and command staff alike responded positively to the fact that Watch Me put field responders in the driver’s seat to request visibility and backup when they needed it. St. Cloud decided to test Watch Me, with open minds and a focus on the officer experience.

UNLOCKING USE CASES TO BENEFIT FROM WATCH ME

In order to test Watch Me, the agency assembled a group of five officers to activate Watch Me at least five times a shift for a period of 90 days. Some officers and command staff were admittedly skeptical, thinking that the new technology was interesting, but may “not have a lot of practical applications”, as patrol Lieutenant Justin Day put it.

However, the test users soon found Watch Me to be a reliable, helpful tool for gaining visibility in the field, including for use cases they wouldn’t have anticipated. Officers found that they could send a clear, unambiguous signal that they wanted or needed a supervisor to live stream in, enabling them bring their supervisors in a the right moment and bring their eyes to the right camera to make an impact. Supervisors, for their part, could know exactly when to start a live stream, see the situation unfold in real time, and make informed decisions on next steps and resource allocation.

Here are some of the many scenarios in which St. Cloud found Watch Me helpful:

Scenario #1 - Hands-Free While Locating a Suspect
Officer Tyler Tabatt, one of the test users of Watch Me at St. Cloud, felt confident yet trepidatious as he entered a basement to search for a suspect. He knew that the situation would likely develop and change quickly as he navigated the search, so he activated Watch Me, immediately bringing his supervisor in to hear the commands he was giving and notify others of the developing situation, all without him having to take out his radio.

If the situation had had to go to force, which it fortunately didn’t, he realized he wouldn’t have had to take a hand off his weapon to handle his radio to communicate with his supervisor — he could be assured that his supervisor had the whole view of the situation and could help as needed. “I could just focus and [it was] one less thing off my plate to do,” says Officer Tabatt.

Scenario #2 - Connecting a Community Member to a Supervisor
Officer Tabatt also experienced an incident in the field in which a community member wanted to speak to a supervisor. He activated Watch Me to indicate to his supervisor that their involvement was requested, and the community member discussed their concern with the supervisor through the body-worn camera itself, resolving the situation without the Sergeant having to travel to the scene.

Scenario #3 - Saving Time with Identification
Officers also found Watch Me helpful for bringing in a second set of eyes to identify suspects in the field without additional back-and-forth needed. “When a suspect lies and doesn't identify himself, but he is known to the agency otherwise as a ‘frequent flyer’, someone back at the agency [can] identify them and save time,” notes Lt. Burke. With Watch Me, the officer can tap into the collective knowledge of their agency right when they need it.

Scenario #4 - Spotting Key Details
One scenario that was eye-opening for Lt. Day, as a supervisor, for Watch Me’s potential benefits occurred when a newer officer was doing a vehicle search on a traffic stop. The officer activated Watch Me, and Lt. Day was able to spot a bag of contraband through the live stream that the officer hadn’t been able to see. This meant the officer was able to collect all the evidence for the investigation the first time, with his supervisor’s additional perspective.

Scenario #5 - Seeing the Truth while Saving Travel Time
Some of Lt. Day’s staff were out on a call about a noise complaint where the individual refused to turn down their blaring music. Lt. Day was debating whether to send his team in with a warrant to take the individual into custody, but questioned whether it was worth it for a misdemeanor crime as warrants pose risks to officers. When his team member called him by phone, he couldn’t hear the extent of the noise due to the phone’s noise-canceling capabilities. 

The officer decided to activate Watch Me to give Lt. Day a better idea of the true situation — when Lt. Day viewed the live stream, he realized how loud the music truly was and that it merited a warrant. He found that he was able to make a call based on the extent of the situation without having to take the time to travel to the scene.

A police officer wearing an Axon Body 4 camera with POV attachment takes a witness statement at sunset.PUTTING PRACTICE INTO POLICY

When officers and supervisors saw the many benefits of Watch Me for communication, time savings, and reassuring officers with a second set of eyes at the moment they needed it, it became clear that the camera feature could have a large impact on their operations. However, the question of policy still remained. As St. Cloud has navigated the update of their body-worn camera policy to incorporate Watch Me and implemented the feature at their agency, Lt. Burke has a few considerations and recommendations for other agencies who may be doing the same:

  • Educate End-Users: Ensure end-users have a full understanding of what the feature does and does not do — they have the option of using Watch Me for additional guidance and support, but are not mandated to utilize it and have control over its operation. Command staff cannot remotely start the camera live stream using Watch Me.

  • Authorize with Purpose: Be specific about who will have authorization to receive the Watch Me requests from officers (such as Sergeants, Lieutenants, Commanders, Assistant Chief of Police, and the Chief of Police), and communicate this to officers.

  • Be Transparent, Communicative and Consistent: Ask your agency to review how a past situation played out and how Watch Me could have potentially changed its outcome. Be consistently open and honest about your intentions and goals for how Watch Me and live streaming will be used at your agency.

  • Be Specific: In your policy, be specific about all of the above: what Watch Me is, how it can be used, who can access it, and what its intended purpose is for your agency.

Watch Me, and Axon Respond in general, is a capability whose importance would become clearest, says Lt. Burke, when a high-stakes event occurs and an agency wishes they had turned it on sooner. St. Cloud is proactively building their policy to incorporate real-time, user-initiated live support before that can happen.

While implementing live capabilities had proven to be a policy and alignment challenge for their agency, Watch Me was the key to alleviating concerns, empowering officers, and making real-time situational awareness a reality for the agency. Watch Me, by putting the power in the hands of officers on scene, helped St. Cloud overcome the barriers that were preventing them from implementing the critical operational benefits of live streaming.

As technology evolves, many agencies are navigating what policies, procedures, and tools work best to empower them to serve the needs of their communities. By listening to officers, adapting the opportunities offered by technology to their needs, and putting best practices into policy, St. Cloud Police Department has been able to leverage Watch Me as a powerful efficiency, communication and safety tool.