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How to buy tactical surveillance cameras

Using a tactical surveillance camera is a smart safety tactic all SWAT teams can deploy in a multitude of scenarios


The fluidity and uncertainty of tactical situations call for the deployment of this technology to preserve life and property.

AP Photo/Steve Helber

SWAT teams face many challenges when confronted with a barricaded suspect or, even worse, a hostage situation. Human intelligence is often unreliable as the situation can be very fluid. Charging blindly into a tactical situation is never a smart choice.

The smart and safe tactic to locate suspects and hostages in real-time is by using a tactical surveillance camera. These are lightweight, functional and can be deployed in a multitude of scenarios.

Choosing a tactical surveillance camera is based on your agency’s need and funding source. What you first want to ascertain is what a camera unit can and can’t do. Failure to adequately research such a purchase can be costly. You want to eliminate unrealistic expectations.

Police1 columnist and retired Dallas Police Department Detective and SWAT team member Rich Emberlin suggests the following pre-purchase questions:

1. How functional is it?

SWAT equipment should be lightweight so the operator can carry it to the incident without getting exhausted in the process. It should also be durable to withstand the majority of tactical environments.

It should be a simple hand-held design with lenses of various lengths and functions to include a spatula to see under doors, flexible and articulating to see perhaps around corners, and a pole to see over walls or other high objects. A telescopic pole is suggested to be able to observe at a distance.

A good tactical camera kit should provide the operator with the ability to view the incident with different methods of holding the viewer. This can be through a monitor, the actual camera lens, or a wrist monitor. The latter can free up an operator’s hands to hold a weapon if necessary.

2. Is it wireless with a good battery life?

An operator needs to be agile and not have to maneuver around a cable. A new generation of cameras offers digital over the traditional analog, which offers a whole new wave of tactical opportunities such as increased transmission distance, clarity of image and more suitable to encryption.

3. Can it transmit what I’m looking at back to command post in real time?

Having real-time capability is critical. To maintain operational security having encryption capability is recommended. Hi-definition also enhances the clarity of the situation eliminating distortions that may adversely affect decision making. A thermal capability also can be of benefit to better locate a suspect and identify weapons with better clarity.

4. Can it be easily observed by a suspect putting myself and fellow officers at risk?

Concealment is supported by the design of the lenses and the operational training afforded the user.

5. Is it simple to operate?

The last thing an operator needs while surveilling a suspect is a complicated piece of equipment that diverts their attention. It should pretty much be limited to turning the unit on, choosing the appropriate lens, strategically deploying it, focusing, and looking at the LED screen for images. There should always be the balance between high-tech and function which does not compromise the mission.

6. How expensive is this type of equipment?

New generations of digital models are surprisingly affordable. Depending on the attachments, the price range can be between $8,000 for a camera and pole attachment to $53,000 for an entire kit. This is where decisions need to be made based on needs, resources and risk aversion. Cameras have proven extremely effective in tactical situations and are indisputable assets to teams.

Funding streams for new equipment do exist. One of these is the Urban Area Security Initiative grants offered by the Department of Homeland Security.

Emberlin said that during his tenure with DPD he was able to obtain funding from private donors.

“I simply wrote a memo to the Chief of Police at the time, Chief David O. Brown, requesting permission to solicit private entities for funds that allowed us to collect approximately $105,000.00 for rifles that were badly needed for my unit,” he said.

The fluidity and uncertainty of tactical situations call for the deployment of this technology to preserve life and property, as well as mitigate unwarranted litigation.

Joseph J. Kolb, MA, is the executive director for the Southwest Gang Information Center, master instructor for the New Mexico Law Enforcement Academy and instructor in the Criminal Justice program at Western New Mexico University. He is also the mail officer for the Santa Fe (NM) County Adult Detention Facility.