NOTE: See a video demo of the new in-car equipment here.
Officers in York County are armed with one more tool to help prosecute traffic offenders.
One of many benefits of the York County Sheriff's Office new $650,000 in-car camera system is that it automatically backs up its recording to 30 seconds before a traffic stop or crash, likely capturing an offender preceding a stop so there's little question if the case gets to court.
"It runs on a continuous loop, so it's in essence always recording," said Andy Fowler, a sheriff's deputy who has had the upgraded camera, monitor and digital video recorder in his unmarked patrol vehicle for about a month.
"It's great for us in traffic enforcement because it will capture a person running the stop sign, so there's no argument in court. 'Your honor, I didn't run the stop sign.' Yeah, you did. It's on the video."
The upgraded "virtually automatic" mobile system will soon be running in 105 vehicles, said Capt. Allen Brandon. That's not the entire fleet, but it includes the cars patrolling the streets, the ones most likely to take advantage of the system, he said.
In addition to being a great tool to help prosecute offenders, it's a more efficient, more reliable and more cost effective system, Sheriff Bruce Bryant.
The advantages are numerous, said Lt. Mike Baker. The new camera system shoots higher quality video in dark and extremely bright situations, he said.
The camera, mounted in the front window, has a zoom feature. And a feature Fowler said he really likes is the ability to turn off the in-car microphones during playback. He said radio transmissions inside the car can be tuned out to clearly hear what's happening outside the car.
The new system digitally records video, audio and GPS information to an in-car hard drive that holds about seven hours of footage, Brandon said. Deputies can efficiently and wirelessly transfer encrypted files from their car to servers at the Moss Justice Center in York and other district offices across the county.
It takes only a few minutes to transmit several incidents, Fowler said, and it can be done while the officer fills out a report on his computer.
"It's like your home DVR, in that it remembers where you hit 'Pause' and it'll come back to the last spot you transmitted when you get back," Fowler said.
But it's much more advanced than that home DVR, Fowler said. After each recording, an officer categorizes the traffic stop or incident for easy access by the other officers and solicitor's office for prosecution.
Documents and photos can be attached the footage to compile a complete case. Kevin Brackett, 16th Circuit solicitor, said this is another step toward expediting the judicial process.
"Over the past several years, we've gone from paper files to digital files. All the files from police come as scanned digital images," Brackett said. "This is the next progression of that. Having videos in digital format simplifies the discovery process significantly. Hopefully, it will result in getting cases moved even faster."
The system replaces older, analog technology and VHS tapes in place since 2001. The tapes degraded with repeated playback and were susceptible to damage by extreme temperatures. Officers also used to have to come in on their day off or be pulled off the road for an hour or two to transfer the tapes to DVD, Fowler said.
"This way there's no extra handling of it," he said. "It's all on the server. It tracks who accesses it every time and when."
Another plus, Fowler said, is that it keeps the footage on the server for at least 90 days. Inside his trunk, he keeps a basket of videotapes. This system will replace the need for him to retain countless tapes.
Planning and completing this upgrade was three years in the making, Brandon said. The system is always running, but it makes a recording when the car's lights are turned on or the car is in a crash. An officer in the car or remotely can begin the recording, as well.
In addition to increasing productivity, the new system also helps the Sheriff's Office with quality control, Baker said. When someone complains about how an officer handles an incident, the supervisor can easily review the footage and determine if there's an issue, he said.
The upgrade should be complete by October.