Body-Worn Cameras: The Issues That Matter

Throughout the U.S., most people have become familiar with law enforcement body-worn cameras. Results from the adoption of these new devices has been mainly positive; however, not entirely.

As of 2016, 47 percent of law enforcement agencies with between 1 and 500 officers in the United States had adopted the use of body-worn cameras in some fashion. When these agencies received their cameras, roughly 95 percent put one or more of the cameras into use with officers that are both full time and part time. Roughly 44 percent of the smaller departments in the United States had adopted body-worn cameras by 2016 and used them at least once. Respective of larger departments in the United States with 500 or more officers, roughly 80 percent issued body-worn cameras to the officers, and roughly 70 percent of those officers had used their body camera at least once. The data does suggest that the departments utilizing these body-worn cameras do see their value.

With respect to the departments that decided to not utilize body-worn cameras, they weighted the benefits and potential costs of what the new tools could bring. Still, eighty percent of law enforcement agencies in the United States in 2016 found that using the cameras would increase officer safety and evidence collection, as well as reduce agency liability and civilian complaints. Once adopted, the data seems to show that law enforcement professionalism rose by roughly 60 percent, community perceptions of law enforcement improved by 57 percent, and there was a noticeable 34 percent reduction in uses of force.

Benefits of Body-Worn Cameras

There can be many benefits to having officers utilize body-worn cameras when they interact with the public, including:

  1. Providing unbiased evidence for criminal and civil matters.
  2. Allowing departments the opportunity to closely monitor officers‘ actions out in the field.
  3. Investigating and backing up officers’ actions after a complaint is filed.
  4. Enhancing community relations.

By producing unbiased evidence for criminal and civil matters, body cameras provide law enforcement agencies the opportunity to reduce complaints of officer misconduct and increase the public’s perception of their actions. When the public sees that officers are being held accountable for their actions, the environment of trust between law enforcement and the public only strengthens and provides opportunities for officers to work even more closely with community leaders and members at serving the needs of their community.

Though many benefits are evident, there remains at least the perception of weaknesses and threats posed by law enforcement’s use of body-worn cameras.

When a questionable situation is caught on camera, the person watching the video often has a completely different view of the facts of that situation compared to even the person next to him. The issue becomes even more complex when an average citizen believes they are seeing events unfold just as that officer did because the body-worn camera appears to show the officer’s point of view. Officers are trained to judge and assess situations in ways that will offer them the ability to recognize and react to potentially dangerous situations, even before they become more serious, in order to assist in protecting the officer, the subject, and the public from potential harm. The average citizen, however, has not had such training,

Considerations for Law Enforcement

Law enforcement leadership should consider the needs and desires of the communities they service and there may be additional privacy concerns related to recording non-enforcement interactions. New technologies, such as facial recognition, have become a growing concern for some in the United States, where issues with retaliation against persons engaging in protected speech are believed to have become more prevalent. Agency leadership can often address these kind of public concerns through their policies and procedures by setting the standards for their department regarding when cameras are to be activated and deactivated.

Data retention is another concern related to body-worn cameras. Modern cameras utilize digital recordings that then must be retained by that agency, in some cases for a seemingly indefinite amount of time. As such, the cost of that data retention can grow at an exponential rate, particularly as more and more officers utilize their cameras during both enforcement actions and regular civilian interactions. Leadership knows that this costs money and that must be accounted for in the annual budget. Where there aren’t such strict state laws regarding data retention, agencies have an opportunity to balance the benefits of these tools with the costs of data retention through the use of proper policies and procedure for when their cameras are activated and deactivated, when video data is to be retained, and how long the data is to be retained when there is no other evidence of a civil or criminal need.

Is your agency considering using body-worn cameras? Is your agency looking for guidance regarding policies and procedures relating to the use of body-worn cameras or the retention of video data? Do you have other questions about any of these issues? OSS – Law Enforcement Advisors can help sift through the confusion of these emerging technologies to help better serve the needs of your agency and the community you serve. Contact us today.

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