I was recently involved with a project that chose to look at things from the perspective of both sides of a use of force issue. I thought that the idea of two sides of the truth was an excellent way to frame the topic.
I have been involved in the review of body worn cameras and civilian complaints for quite a few years now. The idea of two sides of the truth really frames the perspectives of people on both sides of the camera. When the discussion of body worn cameras first entered the picture (pun intended) there were some strong opinions from police officers against the concept. Many of the officers I worked with wanted to gather evidence because they knew they were good cops and were tired of complaints being filed against them. Locally, we had a police officer who had used a personal dash camera for years and recorded his every stop. When a citizen would come in to complain, he would allow the complaint to be filed and the process to proceed and then drop his video into the mix toward the end of the investigation. He even used his videos to file lawsuits against the people who filed those complaints. Some inspired by his actions and the advancement of small, affordable body worn cameras, started recording citizen contacts. There were many benefits that drew more officers to spend their own money on equipment.
Eventually the department invested in the cameras and applied a policy to direct the use and application of video while on duty. Many officers who were now forced to participate were concerned that the videos would be used against them for minor violations. I understand that concern and would strongly encourage any department who is considering using body worn cameras to find a workable solution to gain the trust of your people so that the video will be used in a judicious manner and not a morale breaker. Of all the video, I have reviewed over the past many years, I can only think of a couple of instances where an officer was referred for discipline because of egregious violations although many were spoken with privately to show them how perspective can lead to better ways to interact.
Since that time, I have been in the position to receive citizen complaints and review body camera video. The process I use is to meet with the complaining parties and record the interview and gather a written complaint. I, like many I would suspect, believed one of two outcomes from the complaint procedure. I would either catch the complaint filers in a lie and recommend charges for filing a false police complaint or I would need to document the complaint and send it on for further review and discipline. What I found then and now has gone a long way in shaping my understanding of two sides of the truth.
I would receive the complaint from the citizens and then speak with the officer for their explanation of the event that took place. I would then request a copy of the video and review it carefully before scheduling a review with the complaining parties. The results of almost every complaint played out like this:
Me: I have reviewed the video and want to go over it with you. I won’t pretend to know how to do your job but let me explain a little about how police function and how we see the world. (I would often get groans because they thought I was taking one side and they were not going to be heard. After explaining how the police function, I would show the video.)
Complainant: Officer, tell that officer I am sorry. That is not how I remembered the incident.
I even had one man watch the video and say to me, “That is not how it happened” as he tried to reconcile his perception to the video.
I would go back to the officers and they wanted the person charged with filing a false complaint against an officer. I would then go on to explain how we could never sustain a complaint because it was all perspective and there was no lie or false complaint. That scene continues to this day. I am to the point now that I know that once someone reviews a video, they will not want to proceed with their complaint. I can do this with full confidence that people often remember things differently than what happened. It is the same for the officer. I am a huge believer in body worn cameras for many reasons but the biggest is because they can be used to educated both officers and the public on how important perspective is in how we view everything that happens around us.
In my opinion, the ability to understand perspective on both sides is the only way to work past the current environment so that people will better grasp both sides of the truth.
Tim Barfield is in his 35th year as a police officer. He started as a police officer in a rural village before transferring to an inner ring suburb of Cleveland, Ohio. He spent 32 years in that department gaining experience in many areas of police work. In 2014, he accepted a position as police chief for another department. He is a husband, father and grandfather who has a love for police work and police officers with a goal of helping them succeed in a great profession. His responsibilities and desires have included patrol, traffic, DARE, SWAT, training and supervision. He is a member of the International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association. He continues to learn and instruct on subjects with an emphasis on awareness, police survival mindset and ethics.