Analytics Brief: Is the future of policing body-worn cameras?


Law enforcement agencies and their agents are sworn to protect citizens, property and infrastructure. Today, many large police departments are planning to add or implement body-worn cameras as part of their effort to fulfill this pledge. A quick scan of recent news sources reveals increasing numbers of stories covering these implementations. Just recently, the city of Baltimore, Maryland, began issuing body-worn cameras. Body-worn cameras may be the future of policing; they serve as a silent informant documenting an exact account of police business scenarios, from questioning suspects or witnesses to investigating accident and crime scenes.

Obstacles to implementation

Despite the beneficial possibilities of body-worn camera programs, many questions and unknowns remain. According to a recent Homeland Security News Wire article citing preliminary results from a large, randomized-controlled trial in criminal justice research involving UK and US police forces, rates of assault against officers are significantly higher when they use body-worn cameras. Another recent GCN article mentions that the high costs of redacting and storing video data and maintaining a system result in some departments taking a slow approach to adopting body-worn cameras.

Voices of authority

How can we augment body-worn camera programs to improve policing? And what can we do to minimize the cost and time spent redacting and storing data? Law enforcement experts weighed in on these issues and shared their thoughts on several other questions:

  • Is deployment of body-worn cameras really helping to improve community relations and create a more balanced view between agencies and the community?
  • What are the most advantageous and successful aspects of body-worn camera projects to date?
  • What best practices should law enforcement agencies consider when implementing a body-worn camera program?
  • How do we manage video from body-worn cameras and Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests?
  • How can law enforcement agencies effectively handle the challenges of video data management, storage, redaction and retention?
  • How do we handle the question of citizen privacy and the requirements of the Criminal Justice Information Standards (CJIS) in regard to privacy?

Billy Grogan

Chief of police, Dunwoody, Georgia, Police Department

Because of the rapidly changing landscape of body-worn cameras and the increased pressure on law enforcement agencies to adopt this technology, a real danger of moving too fast exists that can open up the agency to potential liability and the officers to uncertainty. An easy way to avoid these problems is to be deliberate as you develop a plan for the adoption of this technology.

One of the most important considerations when adopting body-worn camera technology is the development of a strong policy that covers six key areas of video: capture, viewing, using, release, storage and data audits and controls. For more information, take a look at a great resource for starting a body-worn camera program.

Agencies need to understand the reality that the cost of body-worn cameras is not just about the purchase of the devices themselves. Instead, the real cost is in the storage of the data. The retention schedule for body-worn camera video varies from state to state and needs to be taken into consideration when developing a body-worn camera program. The Urban Institute provides a breakdown by state of storage time requirements . Recently, the police department in Clarkesville, Indiana, for example, announced that it will suspend its body-worn camera program because of the excessive costs associated with storage after Indiana passed a law mandating storing video for 190 days.

Another major problem related to body-worn camera programs is whether the video is subject to FOIA requests, which varies from state to state. However, agencies need to take this factor into consideration because of the potential cost of duplication and redaction when providing copies of the video. Legislators in Georgia, for example, passed legislation that deemed video recorded by the police—in which an expectation of privacy is involved—is not subject to FOIA requests and can be released only to the parties involved or their attorney or parent.

Keeping up with the most current legislation related to body-worn cameras is important for agencies because the laws change to address modifications of agencies’ practices, policies and personnel.

Stephen LaPenta

Owner, South Detectives, and retired detective lieutenant and consultant in the organized crime, intelligence, and racketeering bureau of the New Jersey Attorney General’s office

Recording devices capture real-time events. An officer needs to have an opportunity to view the captured video prior to making any statements. Why are vest-worn videos eroding the US Supreme Court’s Graham v. Connor [490 US 386 (1989)] opinion, wherein the officer is still entitled to qualified immunity?

Officers’ actions are judged by empirical standards based on the video images after the indecent, not by the objective reasonable standard of their use of force based on their cognitive memory to the incident. When confronted with a threat, a person can only react in two fashions—fight or flight. Either way, a biological reaction—not mental decision process rules, instinct and training—results in reflex actions.

Giving police officers an opportunity to view any video of the incident prior to any statements they make serves to complement their memory—not as a tool for collusion to conform to the video. This opportunity can lessen the chances of conflicts in officers’ statements versus the versions viewed on any video.

At the end of the day, law enforcement mirrors the will of the people through the legislative, executive and judicial branches. Those who enforce the law need to follow the law. As such, law enforcement needs to maintain a strong liaison with legislators to communicate clearly its concerns and provide recommendations to influence the architecture of the environment in which it needs to practice.

Morgan Wright

Principal and owner, Morgan Wright LLC, and cyber-terrorism and cyber-crime analyst

Whether the deployment of body-worn cameras is helping to improve community relations and create a more balanced view between agencies and the community is still too early to tell. The reality is not about community-police relations; the real test is the partnership between the police and the public. Crime is not a police problem; it’s a community problem.

Technology should never be seen as the answer to an issue that is inherently about a public-private partnership to solve common problems. The deployment of body-worn cameras can help build trust and inform the public about how a particular decision was made. For example, few people understand the force continuum and why officers resorted to lethal force when they did.

With regard to the question of citizen privacy and the requirements of the CJIS, policy is the starting point. You can’t disclose what you don’t collect. If it’s required, collect it. If it’s not required, does the collection serve a business, legislative, operational or other purpose? Effective cybersecurity keeps private video that shouldn’t be disclosed. Too many agencies skimp on cybersecurity. This course of action is a failed strategy, which numerous breaches of government, law enforcement and the private sector have clearly shown.

At the end of the day, agencies implementing body-worn camera programs need to make sure they clearly understand what they want to do, why they want to do it, who will do it and how it will be managed and reported. They need to determine how access will be provided, what safeguards will be put in place, how long it will be stored, how administrators and managers will be trained and more. They also need to take advantage of the model policies put out by law enforcement technology organizations and adapt them to fit their own purposes.

Samuel Smith

Police veteran of 18 years and captain, Doerun, Georgia, Police Department

The idea of body-worn cameras by police officers is still too new to make a conclusive determination as to whether or not these cameras will have a positive impact on relations between law enforcement agencies and the community. These programs are certainly being asked for by a large part of communities, particularly in urban communities. As funds become available, many departments of any relative size are adopting some form of body-worn camera system.

Will these cameras suddenly make law enforcement–involved uses of force crystal clear to citizens and law enforcement administrators and other government officials as being right or wrong? I seriously doubt they will because there is no clear understanding of or no attempt to understand it. Also not yet clear is whether the technology is as good as some may believe it to be. As far as I’m aware, no manufactured device exists that can record perceptions that only later might be proven false. By perceptions I mean that what the eye sees in the dark, the brain might mistakenly perceive as some sort of weapon. However, in the light of day or in the comfort of an office in front of a computer, the perceived weapon ends up not being a weapon at all.

Nevertheless, the chance exists that the technology might help; and if that chance is true, then it is certainly worth the investment in terms of time and money. Our world is evolving, and so is crime. Law enforcement agencies need to augment their body-worn camera programs with intelligent video analytics to truly experience the full slate of benefits.

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