Police Body Camera Bursts Into Flames; New York Pulls 2990 From Use

NEW YORK, NY — The New York Police Department is removing nearly 3,000 body cameras from use after one of the devices worn by a Staten Island officer exploded into flames, police officials said on Sunday.

The recall of the Vievu-brand LE-5 cameras could delay the department’s plan to outfit all 23,000 patrol officers with body cameras by December, and adds another twist to the complicated history surrounding the mechanisms that have already led to at least one lawsuit over how video from police encounters can be used.

The use of police body cameras has surged in recent years amid a national debate over police interactions with civilians, punctuated by fatal shootings by officers of mostly unarmed black teenagers and men. Law enforcement agencies have embraced the devices as useful tools for conducting investigations and evaluating officer conduct, while reform advocates espouse their potential to help curb abuses and increase transparency.

The city’s $6.4 million contract for the Vievu cameras set off a contentious debate in 2016 after it surfaced that other police departments had raised concerns about the cameras’ quality, and the city comptroller briefly blocked the deal. But the mayor and police officials defended their choice and moved forward with the plan. Vievu introduced the LE-5 in October 2017, listing among its features a lithium-ion battery that boasts more than 12 hours of recording time.

The Police Department on Sunday said it would pull 2,990 of its LE-5 cameras after the explosion “revealed a potential for the battery inside the camera to ignite.”

“The cause and the scope of the defect are currently being investigated,” police officials said in a statement.

The officer was wearing the body camera during a midnight shift in the 121st Precinct on the northwestern shore of Staten Island when he noticed smoke coming from the bottom of the device late Saturday night, according to the Police Department. He was not injured when the body camera exploded, the police said.

Officers who had been assigned the LE-5 cameras were told to immediately remove the devices and hand them in.

The police commissioner, James P. O’Neill, suspended further use and distribution of the camera model “out of an abundance of caution.”

“Nothing is more important than the safety of our officers, and equipping the N.Y.P.D. with the best equipment is a paramount priority,” he said.

The explosion was first reported by Spectrum News NY1 on Sunday, and a reporter posted a photo on Twitter of flames shooting from the device.

The police said other camera models, including the LE-4, are not affected by the order. Officers who were issued the LE-5 cameras would continue working without body cameras, officials said.

So far, the Police Department has deployed more than 15,500 Vievu body cameras to officers working in its precincts, public housing, service areas and transit districts. The LE-5 model had been used in 16 commands across the city.

The Police Department said earlier this year that all uniformed patrol officers would be wearing the devices by the end of the year — a year earlier than originally planned. Twenty-six commands were scheduled to get the devices between October and December, completing the rollout.

Sydney Siegmeth, the vice president of global communications for Axon, Vievu’s parent company, said the company was working with the police to investigate the issue.

“We will do whatever is necessary to quickly and safely resolve this situation,” she said. Axon was formerly known as Taser.

The labor union representing patrol officers declined to comment.

After the Police Department released body camera footage of three shootings by officers, two of them fatal, the city’s largest labor union sued in January to keep them secret under a state civil rights law that shields officers’ disciplinary records from public disclosure.

The demand for the body cameras has ballooned into a multibillion-dollar market dominated by the stun-gun giant Taser, which renamed itself after its Axon body camera in 2017. Axon bought Vievu in May, after losing contract bids to its former rival in major cities like New York, Miami and Phoenix.

From The New York Times