Body-Worn Cameras


Police departments that have implemented a bodyworn camera program have learned that it takes an enormous amount of money, manpower and resources to make the program successful. While recent events involving use of force and officer-involved shootings have fueled debate across the nation between police and critical citizens; the same conflicts have also upped the ante for police departments, placing pressure on them to adopt body-worn cameras (BWC) into their operations and opening a can of worms with which to be reckoned. Privacy issues, BWC policy, staffing, training and compliance and how to pay for BWC are among the concerns with which police all over North America are grappling.

The Price Tag
The Alexandria, Va. Police Department (APD) is widely known for its technologically advanced approach to policing, but even APD hasn’t implemented its body worn camera program yet. Deputy Chief of Police Eddie Reyes said APD has ironed out its policy issues and surveyed the possible vendors, but even in one of the most affluent cities in America, the principal barrier is cost.

“It’s not as simple as just affording the cameras,” he said. Reyes has estimated it would cost at least $250K a year to keep a BWC program running. “The biggest part is that we would have to get at least one full-time employee approved by city hall, and depending on whether that’s an internal or external hire, that would cost something between $75 and $125 thousand dollars.”

The second part of the cost is storage of the video. The choices are to do it in-house, hire a vendor or put it in the cloud. Reyes said APD is not likely to use a cloud solution, even though it might be the most cost effective, because of security concerns. “The cloud just hasn’t been proven yet. We’re putting very sensitive information on there, stuff that’s always protected from public view. In-house, our stuff is pretty well firewalled; a vendor is pretty well firewalled. If there’s a breach and someone got our videos, some of our cases could be compromised in court.”

The third piece of the price tag is maintenance. Even the cost of camera batteries can be significant. But it’s more about replacing broken equipment and cycling old cameras out and replacements in.

The APD employs more than 300 officers and each is issued his or her own rugged laptop and the department has 10 spares. Every year, APD replaces one-third of its laptops so that none is older than three years old. “For cameras, that’s an unknown. I don’t know any agency that’s had them longer than three years to be able to tell what the replacement cycle will be yet,’ said Reyes.

Privacy Issues
The potential to violate a citizen’s right to privacy is a looming issue that is yet not fully understood. Questions that haven’t quite been solved include: what are the best practices if a sexual assault victim asks for the camera to be turned off, or, what if during a domestic dispute there are children present. Some departments’ policies call for never turning the camera off, while many experts are calling for giving officers the authority to use their own discretion during sensitive situations.

Dr. Michael D. White is a professor of criminal justice at Arizona State University. During his testimony before the Presidential Police Task Force in Cincinnati in January, he spoke to the importance of having a strong administrative policy supported with training for officers: “These privacy concerns are real, and officers will need guidance on how to deal with them,” he said. “When police departments develop their policy, they should engage with multiple stakeholders, including victim advocacy groups, to insure that they fully understand the important issues and concerns surrounding the impact of BWCs on victims, children and other vulnerable populations.”

There’s considerable concern over officers’ privacy as well. Issues range from the use of confidential informants being compromised to having personal conversations over lunch or professional conversation about one’s performance being recorded. The American Civil Liberties Union has suggested cameras be turned on at the start of an officer’s shift and not be turned off until the end of the shift. Such a program would pose serious objectionable issues for officers and create an enormous, and some would argue unnecessary, need for additional digital storage.

BWC Policy
Policies on BWC are starting to emerge from organizations like the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) and the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF). But not everyone agrees on how to define all the issues and some will come down to not only considering best practices but agency resources as well. What everyone does agree on, however, is that writing a BWC policy and thoroughly training officers on policy and procedure are both absolutely essential to the success of any BWC program.

One significant issue that needs to be determined by every police department is whether cops are allowed to review videos prior to writing their incident reports. Both PERF and the IACP recommend this be allowed in order to assist the officer in capturing the facts as they occurred.

A second policy consideration is to determine whether the video is routinely monitored, randomly monitored or monitored only if a questionable incident occurs. While some monitoring is justifiable in order to make sure the program is working as intended, critics warn that abusing the privilege could create an atmosphere where officers feel over-scrutinized and possibly harassed as a result.

BWC policy should also address the responsibilities of the officers regarding approved devices, maintenance and inspection of devices, when devices should be worn and under what circumstances any exceptions are made as well as which types of incidents should always be recorded and what should never be recorded. It’s imperative that police state whether the officer has the discretion to turn of the camera and when.

Officers who stop recording need provided guidance in policy as to authorization to turn off a camera and what documentation of that is required.

FOIA Requests
The special handling of evidentiary video should be addressed by policy. Unnecessary recordings that are made accidentally should have a procedure by which they’re deleted and those deletions need to be tracked.

While the above is not an exhaustive list, it’s enough for anyone to see what could be the biggest problem of all—increased officer workload. With BWC, officers now have to download the videos, categorize them as to evidentiary or administrative and flag issues or even learning opportunities within the videos. They must also assume responsibility for keeping the recording devices in good working order.

In Alexandria, at Least One Unanswered Question Remains
For the most part, the APD is ready to implement a BWC program. The agency has a policy drafted and is honing in on choosing a vendor. The only thing holding them up is funding from the city. But for Reyes, the one other looming question is how long they will retain the video files.

The Deputy Chief said, “that’s one issue that’s going to cause a lot of problems.” APD, he said, “is likely to apply the LPR benchmark. We’re probably looking at 90–180 days for non-evidentiary video.” For that reason, Reyes said he’s bracing himself for a challenge from those with privacy concerns. “I get that. Innocent people go ‘why am I in a police database?’”

The flip-side he said, is there’s no time limit on how far down the road someone can lodge a complaint against one of his officers. “That’s when it’d be nice to have that video that just got deleted,” he said.

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