"Body-worn cameras should be on the radar screen of every law-enforcement agency" – Urgent Communications

November 21st, 2016

Posted In: Industry Insights

The evidence is clear: Body-worn cameras should be on the radar screen of every law-enforcement agency

Originally published in Urgent Communications, Wavelengths, November 15, 2016

By Scott Neal

Clearly a groundswell is forming that in the coming years could well push body-worn cameras into most, if not all, law-enforcement agencies across the United States. Indeed, there are several compelling reasons for law-enforcement agencies to embrace this technology, which represents a giant leap forward from the in-vehicle cameras that first emerged more than three decades ago.

One is that body-worn cameras are able to go where in-vehicle cameras cannot—basically, wherever the officer goes. This enables officers to capture compelling evidence that otherwise would be unattainable—for example, when they are entering a home to mitigate a domestic violence incident or chasing a suspect into the subway—evidence that will help prosecutors win more convictions. (Prosecutors love video evidence.) In fact, such evidence often leads to more plea bargains—suspects usually look to deal once they see the footage of them committing the crime of which they’re accused—which reduces the time that officers have to spend in court, keeping them on the street where they are needed most.

It has been said that a picture is worth a thousand words—if so, then video, at least in this regard, is worth tens of thousands.

Another compelling reason for law-enforcement agencies to deploy body-worn camera systems is that the prospect of being recorded usually is enough to keep both citizens and police officers in line. In March 2015, the Interim Report of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing cited the results of a 12-month study conducted in 2014 by the Rialto (California) Police Department, first published in the Journal of Quantitative Criminology.

The controlled trial involved every officer on all shifts being issued body-worn cameras, which reportedly resulted in roughly 60 percent fewer incidents of force and 88 percent fewer citizen complaints about officer misconduct compared with the previous 12 months. The trial demonstrated that, without question, citizens are less likely to break laws when they know they’re being recorded. Similarly, police officers generally are more likely to follow department regulations, and specifically are more likely to act prudently when they encounter a situation that requires them to use force to subdue a suspect, when body-worn cameras are utilized.

This is an important point that cannot be overstated, as allegations of officer misconduct cost municipalities millions of dollars every year.  To litigate is costly and occasionally comes at a much higher cost, as evidenced in the recent civil unrest that occurred in Baltimore in the aftermath of the Freddie Gray incident.

In addition, video of various officer interactions offers an outstanding training tool that can be used in law-enforcement academies to provide text-book examples of law enforcement done right—and done wrong.

Perhaps the most compelling reason for police departments to embrace this technology is that it enables a vital question to be answered about an incident: what happened?

Often, no witnesses can be found to an incident; this puts juries in quite a bind when the suspect dies while being apprehended by police or while in their custody, because jurors have to rely solely on the testimony of the officers involved in the incident. This situation also creates a great deal of mistrust amongst the citizenry and the media. Video evidence greatly enhances the ability to get to the truth.

Finally, it appears that the citizens, i.e., taxpayers, that are served by law-enforcement agencies believe overwhelmingly that body-worn cameras are a good idea. According to a YouGov survey conducted shortly after the Freddie Gray incident, 88 percent of Americans favor the use of such devices by law-enforcement officers. Body-worn cameras also have captured the attention of the federal government. The Senate Judiciary Committee on Crime and Terrorism held a hearing in May 2015 on whether such technology could be used to increase protection for law enforcement and the public. About body-worn cameras, Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), a member of the committee, said prior to the hearing: “I believe that body-worn cameras will keep both law enforcement officers and citizens safer, while providing invaluable evidence for potential investigations.”

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Justice is expected to launch a pilot program this year that will provide $20 million in funding to enable dozens of departments—about a third of which will be smaller departments—to purchase body-worn cameras, according to the Washington Post.

So, body-worn cameras produce compelling evidence that leads to more convictions and plea bargains, while reducing excessive-force incidents and citizen complaints; the video they produce creates transparency and greater officer accountability, as well as a valuable training tool for both aspiring and current officers; and both government and constituents are in favor of their use. At this point, it might seem to the reader that the decision to deploy body-worn cameras in a law-enforcement agency is a proverbial no-brainer. But, as in most things in life, the devil is in the details.

Eyes Wide Open

Several types of body-worn cameras are available to law-enforcement agencies. The most common is the type that clips to an officer’s shirt front. Other types clip to eyeglass/sunglass frames or are combined with speaker microphones. And then there’s Google Glass, which combines a camera capable of capturing both video and still images with smartphone capability. An added advantage of Google Glass compared with the other options is that it is voice activated.

While the cost of the high-tech Google Glass is quite pricey—about $1,500 per unit—the other types of body-worn cameras are relatively affordable, about $500 per unit. When compared with the cost of litigating an officer-wrongdoing case, or even that of the portable radio carried by officers, the cost of a body-worn camera appears quite reasonable.

However, the real concern about cost as it relates to body-worn cameras involves storage. Such devices generate massive amounts of video, which means that law-enforcement agencies need massive amounts of storage. While the cost of storage has come down considerably over the years, the amount that would be needed to support a body-worn camera initiative would be huge.

Another key factor that must be considered concerning storage is how long video must be kept. This decision will depend largely on whether the video is evidentiary. It also will depend on the statute of limitations of the alleged crime; for instance, violent crimes have statutes of limitations that can extend out five years or more. Consequently, any video captured related to such events may need to be retained as long as the case remains open. The longer that video has to be retained, the higher the storage costs.

But the most important factor that needs to be considered in terms of video storage concerns chain of custody. The integrity of any evidentiary video is paramount; if it is compromised in any way, it may not be court admissible—in other words, it will be worthless. So, policies will need to be created that control access to the video and ensure it can’t be altered. In addition, a date-and-time-stamped electronic audit trail needs to be created that provides a clear record of what happened to the video every step of the way, from the time it is captured until it is admitted into court as evidence. It must be impossible for the video to be altered or duplicated without someone knowing about it.

There are other significant factors to consider before mulling whether to launch a body-worn camera initiative. Context is one. Video is of greatest value when it is a true representation of the event that occurred. The big question in regard to context concerns whether the entire event was recorded. Of course, the answer will hinge on when the camera was turned on. For this reason, some recommend that officers turn on their cameras as soon as they leave their patrol car. But doing so may result in the capture of large amounts of irrelevant video, which only will exacerbate the storage dilemma. Accordingly, others recommend that officers engage their cameras only when it truly is warranted. The risk in this approach is that the officer may not turn the camera on in time, or at all, resulting in the failure to capture evidence that would provide critical insight into why an event occurred—or why it devolved, which is especially important in incidents where an officer used force. The failure to capture all of the video related to an incident often leads to accusations that the police were trying to cover something up—which would destroy any sense of transparency.

Another factor to consider is that law-enforcement officers may not want them, at least at first. This is due in part to the ubiquitous Big Brother worries, but also due to the age-old conflict between management and those with their boots on the street. Labor-management distrust exists in every sector, and public safety is no exception. In the case of law-enforcement officers, they typically are most concerned that the real intent of the body-worn cameras is to capture evidence that can be used against them in some way; at the very least they may not like the feeling of someone constantly looking over their shoulders that the use of body-worn cameras might create.

Finally, given the statutes that currently exist in some states; some agencies might not be able to deploy body-worn cameras. In Pennsylvania, for example, the state’s wiretapping laws prevent a person’s voice from being recorded without their consent. While an exemption was written into the law for in-vehicle police cameras, which also might cover body-worn cameras in public spaces, no such exemption exists for recording someone’s voice within their home. Given the often dynamic nature of police incidents, this would create significant legal issues for the police.  For instance, let’s say that officers are called to a residence for a domestic dispute, and upon arrival they encounter individuals outside of the residence, so they activate their body-worn cameras.  Then the incident suddenly turns volatile and the people retreat into their home with the officer in pursuit.  If the officers still have their body-worn cameras activated, they would now be in violation of the law.  This makes it wholly impractical for any Pennsylvania agency to deploy such devices, because an officer would need to ask for the permission of those they wish to question—permission that likely isn’t going to be granted. Even if it were to be given, incidents play out so quickly that the officer likely wouldn’t have time to ask for it; in fact, they would have to ask twice, once before the camera is turned on and then after, in order to capture the person’s consent.

In other states, an equally vexing situation exists, in that the video captured by body-worn cameras is considered to be a matter of public record. That has the potential to be very problematic. Let’s say that something occurs at your neighbor’s house that requires a visit by police. In such states, you or anyone else for that matter could file a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to gain a copy of that video, providing a high-tech way to snoop or, far worse, a way for tech-savvy burglars to case a home or business. Obviously, the prospect of such a thing happening has raised the hackles of privacy advocates.

Despite the plethora of factors and concerns that must be considered before deciding to launch a body-worn cameras initiative, such devices have many more plusses than minuses. Here are a few best practices that law-enforcement agencies can implement that will make the deployment go smoother and pay bigger dividends.

  • A two-factor authentication process should be implemented, at a minimum, to control access to captured and stored video. Passwords, personnel-specific test questions, card-swipe systems, biometric systems (e.g., retinal and thumbprint scanners), and tokens that change authentication codes at pre-defined intervals (usually every 60 seconds) all are effective for this purpose.
  • Only supervisory-level personnel should be allowed to access the video, and then only for redaction purposes; the officer who captured the video never should be allowed to access it, much less edit the video.
  • A managed service for video storage is an option; such a service will be easier and potentially less costly—depending on the size of the agency—compared with implementing and managing storage onsite. However, one important caveat is to ensure that the service provides public safety-grade access, reliability and security.
  • Create detailed policies that address how the cameras will be used and how the video they capture will be stored. A balance will need to be struck between ensuring that the video is in context and court-admissible, and the amount of video that the agency can afford to store. A couple of tactics can be used to strike this balance. One would be to instruct officers to turn on their cameras as soon as their “spidey sense” starts to tingle, which would cut down on the amount of irrelevant video that is captured while helping to ensure the capture of all relevant video. Another would be to delete video from servers after it has been downloaded to a DVD or USB drive and then stored securely in an evidence locker, which would dramatically reduce the amount of video that needs to be stored.
  • Some agencies may be more comfortable with having a backup of the video on its servers even after the video has been placed into evidence; in order to ease the capacity strain, it is suggested that such agencies craft a well-defined retention policy that allows video that is not categorized as evidence to be purged after a certain amount of time.
  • In addition, it is advisable that agencies create policies for categorizing video so that it can be found easily and quickly when needed; some computer-aided dispatch (CAD) systems are able to pair call-sheet data with the corresponding officer’s videos.
  • Once the policies are created, train personnel on them and then ensure that they are followed. Nothing creates a feeling of distrust in a community faster than a law-enforcement agency failing to follow its own policies.
  • When choosing a system, make sure that it is impossible for the video to be edited surreptitiously; better still would be to choose a system that prevents the video to be altered altogether. It is vitally important that technology-driven safeguards are in place that protect against unauthorized access and the ability to alter the video. However, it should be noted that video redaction—e.g., the blurring of faces and license plates to protect the innocent—is becoming more prevalent, so a complete avoidance of video altering might not be possible. The situations where redaction is permissible need to be clearly defined in the agency’s video policies.
  • Before jumping in with both feet, consider conducting a pilot project. This will provide a chance to ensure that the system does what the vendor claims, especially in the area of tamper-proofing; it also will provide practical insight into how best to utilize the system—what it can do and what it cannot. It also will provide valuable information that will help to determine whether agency policies need to be revised. The pilot should have clear objectives that are objectively evaluated, in order to protect the agency from favoring a particular vendor.
  • Become familiar with state laws, and work with lawmakers to revise those that make it impractical or impossible for law-enforcement officers to utilize body-worn cameras.
  • In order to get officer buy-in, it is essential to get them involved in the project from the very beginning.

Other than DNA, there arguably is no evidence more compelling than video, which helps prosecutors gain more convictions and plea bargains. It also helps officers perform their duties better and protects them from wrongful accusations. In addition, the transparency it provides leads to improved trust within the community and better relations with citizens, because they know that officers are being held accountable for their actions. Clearly, the decision to deploy body-worn cameras is complex, with a great many factors that require careful consideration. Nevertheless, the evidence seems to clearly indicate that they are the wave of the future in law enforcement.

Scott Neal is a communications consultant for Mission Critical Partners, Inc. (www.missioncritical.3twenty9.net), a public safety communications consulting firm headquartered in Port Matilda, Pennsylvania. Prior to joining MCP, Neal was director of the Pennsylvania State Police Bureau of Communications and Information Services. He can be emailed at scottneal@missioncritical.3twenty9.net.