Unintended Consequences of Body Cameras

Anticipate the challenges that come with body cameras to make the most of this advance in public safety.

by Ashley Bonner, Senior Risk Control Consultant with Trident Public Risk Solutions

Republished with the permission of Public Risk magazine.

We’ve all seen videos of confrontations between police officers and citizens. Police departments throughout the country introduced body cameras to record what happens in these hostile encounters, evaluate what transpired and then use the results of these evaluations to train police officers and resolve allegations of criminality.

Yet life is full of unintended consequences. Most people would think that increased use of body cameras would reveal more instances of police misconduct and would lead to more complaints from citizens claiming police misconduct. You would be wrong – on both counts.

It turns out that law enforcement agencies are finding substantial reductions in uses of force by police officers and in complaints from citizens alleging excessive uses of force. According to findings presented at the August 2016 National Conference of State Legislatures, “The pre-eminent study on body-worn cameras, a field experiment conducted by the Rialto (California) Police Department, found that when police were equipped with cameras during the test period, use of force incidents and citizen complaints against officers were reduced by 50 and 90 percent respectively.” The use of this technology – and the awareness by officers and citizens that this technology is being used – can change behaviors for the better.

The success of body cameras in holding police and citizens accountable for their actions had led many states – 23 at last count – to enact legislation to govern the use of these devices. These laws don’t necessarily force municipalities to buy cameras, nor do they always supply the money required to put in place the technical and personnel infrastructure to uphold the law. The State of Connecticut is a perfect case in point. Its legislature passed a law to govern the use of body cameras by police departments but denied the extra funding that law enforcement agencies requested for the data storage required to support the law. What good are data from body cameras without the means to store it, index it and access it?

Storing data

Each large police department in the United States collects some 52,000 hours in a year. That’s more than 2,100 days of footage, or nearly six years’ worth for a single year. Storing these data and paying for that storage is a prime concern for law enforcement agencies throughout the country. As Time magazine cited recently, the New Orleans police department “plans to pay $1.2 million for 350 cameras, with much of that total going to data storage. A 2014 Police Executive Research Forum report cited one department that reported it would cost $2 million a year for a plan that included 900 cameras – with storage again accounting for the bulk of the amount.”

Storage is not merely a technical question. It’s also a legal one. States such as California, Connecticut and Georgia have created record-retention laws that require law enforcement agencies to retain data for certain lengths of time. Compounding this challenge, law enforcement agencies must preserve an unbreakable chain of custody for data from video surveillance. This chain of custody should include a record of who has handled these data. Law enforcement agencies must take specific care to avoid spoliation, which is the destruction of evidence necessary to pending or contemplated litigation. These agencies must be diligent about following retention schedules and ensuring that records are not destroyed prematurely. Spoliation can result in large fines from the courts; therefore data should be carefully protected. While storing data is a primary challenge associated with the use of body cameras, it’s not the only challenge. Following are four more big ones.

Protecting privacy

Law enforcement agencies have several decisions to make about the technologies they use and the consequences of these technologies. For instance, do the body cameras worn by their officers – as well as subsequent data processing and storage procedures – protect the privacy of victims of crime? What about the camera’s facial-recognition and live-streaming capabilities? They can raise privacy concerns. So can the algorithms and processing power associated with the technologies. Where does a law enforcement agency draw the line on what it is prepared to do or not do?

Reviewing footage

Law enforcement agencies must put in place safeguards to prevent the negligent use of these data. First and foremost, agencies should review footage routinely from each officer, not only to ensure that officers are following procedures and training mechanisms properly, but also as a defense in court. A police official on the stand should be in a position to respond affirmatively to the question: Have you ever reviewed video data and, if so, how often? To respond in the negative could give rise to negligence.

Placing cameras

Another challenge with body cameras is their placement on the body and the direction in which they point. When a camera points at the ground, only the audio portion may be useful. Or not. Vague language often raises more questions than it answers. A camera should be placed stably on the body – the higher on the officer that the camera is mounted, the better. It should also point forward and not at the ground. The idea is for the camera to see what the officer is seeing, to aid in understanding the officer’s perception of the situation at hand. Many times, several officers will be on the scene, giving multiple videos of different angles, which can be quite helpful in understanding what exactly transpired.

Educating the media

Law enforcement agencies, of course, aren’t the only organizations gathering data via video. Media outlets do, too. These outlets collect vast amounts of footage yet may only air brief moments during their broadcasts, which gives rise to public outcry and even violence. As such, risk managers encourage police departments to build strong relationships with local media and use these ties to educate broadcasters on what law enforcement does and why incidents occur. A rapidly evolving situation can be confusing to someone who is not familiar with the training options an officer is provided with, the hierarchy of the use of force, or the nature of handling someone who is unhealthy and overcome by drug use. If local media outlets are educated, they may be able to share more of the story on the air, which would help departments prevent members of the community from jumping to conclusions before the full story is told.

Life is full of unintended consequences. Body cameras come with many of these surprises. Gain the knowledge now to anticipate them and thereby take full advantage of the public-safety benefits of body cameras.

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