A Rare Issue Is Causing Police Body Cameras to Explode

Newark Police officer William Essien sits in a police vehicle while wearing a body camera.

Newark Police officer William Essien sits in a police vehicle while wearing a body camera. Julio Cortez/AP

The nation’s largest police force is changing its body-camera policy after a malfunctioning camera started a fire.

The New York Police Department announced earlier this month that it is removing nearly 3,000 Vievu LE5 body cameras after one patrolling officer’s camera, while still secured to his chest, started smoking. Once removed, the device caught fire and eventually exploded. There were no injuries, but the camera’s internal battery may have ignited, according to the NYPD. The police commissioner directed officers with older models to continue to use them, but the issue could cause the agency to fall short of its goal to equip all 23,000 patrolling officers with cameras by the end of the year.

This wasn’t the first time a camera had malfunctioned. In May, the Miami-Dade Police Department reported that an LE5 model had begun smoking and eventually caught fire when officers tried to retrieve footage from the damaged device. Axon, the company that owns Vievu, hired an investigator to analyze the malfunctioning camera while Miami police continued to use the model.

The public debate on officer body cameras has always centered around abstract risks: the risk of invasion of privacy for those being recorded, the risk of too much or too little transparency in policies determining access to footage, and the many risks involved in advanced artificial intelligence. Last Saturday introduced a risk that’s a little more terrestrial: flammability. How much danger are police departments willing to accept when it comes to the chance of defects?

The risk calculus has proven different from agency to agency. When reached for comment, several police departments said they have opted to continue using the LE5 model. In California, the San Rafael and Oakland Police Departments will continue using it. As will the Aurora Police Department in Colorado and the Wolcott Police Department in Connecticut. Each department says it’s been in touch with Axon, and Axon is reviewing its manufacturing supply chain.

Miami-Dade, meanwhile, will switch to older models after the NYPD incident. Captain Gustavo Duarte of the Miami-Dade Police Department said over the phone that while he acknowledges the camera was used for “two and a half years without incidence,” the department no longer considers its malfunction a “fluke,” as it had in the spring. Forensic investigators hired by Axon concluded that the camera’s battery cell had begun to expand, cracking the case and causing the battery to puncture.

“Now that it happened a second time, now in NY, that’s different,” Duarte said. Changing to a vendor outside of Axon/Vievu would require new software integration and training. For Duarte’s department, the transition will be somewhat easy. The older models the agency will change to have different docking stations, but it has them on hand. “Clearly there’s something going on, and that’s why we’re not using it for now,” Duarte said.

“Lithium-ion batteries carry the same risks found in everyday electronic devices such as cellphones, tablets, and smartwatches, which include the risk of overheating or fire if the battery cell is punctured,” an Axon spokesperson said. Axon hasn’t issued a recall and says it is only aware of these two incidents. It’s important to note that Axon hasn’t determined the cause of the second malfunction, though its similarity to the May incident at least raises the possibility of battery swell.

Axon became the dominant body-camera manufacturer in the country when it acquired Vievu last year (the NYPD’s contract was originally with Vievu prior to the company being acquired), but lithium-ion batteries are common throughout the industry. A 2015 report from the Department of Homeland Security on the body-camera market found that 13 out of 15 manufacturers use lithium-ion batteries. Obviously, these incidents are extremely rare, but the NYPD police commissioner’s choice may signal changes in the industry. The NYPD is the largest police force in the country.

The LE5 incidents offer a rare glimpse at the inner workings of the traditionally opaque process of procuring the cameras: how few options for cameras there are outside of Axon or Vievu, how technically difficult changing mid-contract is, and how departments make their own decisions about risk. Activists and policy makers have had a number of broad reservations about cameras, focused on policy and privacy, but they may want to add a new question: If something goes wrong on the hardware level, what’s the plan?