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The Uncharted Territory of Body Cameras

The Uncharted Territory of Body Cameras

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By Jinnie Chua, Assistant Editor of In Public Safety

In the recent push for police officers to start wearing body cameras, many agencies have found that actually putting them to use is no easy task. On August 1, Ohio put forward a bill that would require all officers to wear cameras. If the bill passes into a reality, $54 million will be put aside to help agencies adopt the technology.

However, not every state that mandates body cameras allocates the funding for it, and the hefty price tag is just one of many hurdles that agencies can face.

“In most states, it is still discretionary whether an agency adopts body camera technology,” says Dr. Chris McFarlin, a faculty member in the Criminal Justice department at American Military University. “There’s a lot of public and political pressure to do so, but because there are so many unknowns, it’s uncharted territory for most agencies.”

Challenges of Implementing Body Cameras

McFarlin has been a sworn officer in South Carolina for more than four years and was a law enforcement officer in Arkansas prior to that. In June 2015, South Carolina became one of the few states to require all officers to wear body cameras. Without funding from the state, many agencies found themselves scrambling to purchase equipment. McFarlin experienced first-hand the financial and administrative challenges of implementing a body camera program. Since then, he’s concentrated on studying the legal implications of the technology.

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McFarlin gives his presentation on Body-Worn Cameras: Best Practices for Law Enforcement

Last month, McFarlin was invited by the Wisconsin Chiefs of Police Association to give a presentation on the impacts of body-worn cameras. His August 9 presentation, Body-Worn Cameras: Best Practices for Law Enforcement, outlined some of the challenges and questions agencies need to navigate with the adoption of body cameras, including:

Technology – Agencies have a vast array of manufacturers to choose from and different cameras have different capabilities. For example, some have different integration features with existing camera technology and IT infrastructures, while others have various types of cataloging software and pre-incident recording buffers.

Infrastructure – Many agencies don’t realize that the initial cost of purchasing equipment is not the biggest expense. Rather, it’s putting the infrastructure in place to store the footage that makes the system so costly. Agencies that are required to keep footage for longer will ultimately need to spend more than those in states with shorter storage requirements. Just recently, with new laws that now require longer storage times, departments in Indiana and Connecticut have suspended their body camera programs because they lack the funding to keep up.

Funding – The cost versus benefit of the technology is the central consideration for most agencies. They need to consider how much funding they will need and where to find it. Are there private grants available or will the government cover the purchase and maintenance needed to support the technology? Will the prosecuting authority and other industry stakeholders share costs associated with camera implementation?

Legal – The legal aspect is perhaps the biggest hurdle for agencies. McFarlin emphasized that agencies need to be familiar with the legal requirements of their state, including when officers need to record an interaction, how long it must be stored, as well as who can view, access, and redact the footage.

For example, in Wisconsin anything that’s captured on an officer’s camera is considered public information. As a result, Wisconsin agencies need to record large amounts of content and keep it for longer periods of time. This is starkly different than in McFarlin’s home state of South Carolina, which has less demanding public record laws so the footage recorded by police is not typically discoverable under the Freedom of Information Act. Agencies here are allowed to redact information before it’s released to the public, which also means they don’t have as much to store.

Comparing just these two states illustrates how important it is for agencies to provide continuous training about body camera legislation so officers know exactly what their legal duties entail and how to use the technology appropriately.

Administrative – Many agencies are uncertain about how to best approach writing a successful body camera policy. Agencies have to write policies that are legally sound and that incorporate many of the potential scenarios officers are likely to find themselves in. Policy development was one of the main focuses of McFarlin’s presentation to the Wisconsin police executives.

[Related: Body-Worn Cameras: Benefits and Best Practices for Police]

Writing the Right Policy for Your Community

When formulating a policy, it can be useful for an agency to refer to industry-accepted best practices, as well as sample policies from agencies that have adopted successful programs. During his Wisconsin presentation, McFarlin distributed information packets that included this material [Editor’s note: You can send McFarlin an email to receive one]. So although there’s no need for an agency to go in blind when writing its own policy, McFarlin does point out that relations between communities and their police departments vary greatly.

“Yes, there are things that every law enforcement agency should do, regardless of who you are and where you are, but a successful policy comes from an agency’s ability to make it tailor fit the department and the community’s needs,” he says.

McFarlin suggests including community members, as well as police officers and higher level executives, in designing the body camera program. In fact, especially in communities where there is a greater distrust of law enforcement, McFarlin strongly suggests bringing in the individuals who seem to be the biggest critics. This helps ensure that everyone has an understanding of what the technology can and cannot do.

For example, cameras only capture one angle of an incident and may not capture an entire interaction. As discussed with the Wisconsin police executives, McFarlin recommends placing the camera on the head or belt of the officer, but not in the center of an officer’s chest. In a shooting incident, for example, where footage is the most critical, the officer’s arms are often extended directly in front of their chest. If this is where cameras are worn, critical evidence may be obstructed from the recording.

A Positive Tool for All

Body cameras have proven to be a helpful tool for both police officers and community members, as well as for helping to build a relationship between the two. Not only do the cameras heighten police accountability, but they also allow for a greater appreciation of what police officers encounter on a daily basis.

“Agencies who are struggling with community relationships will have a lot more work to do,” says McFarlin, “But the good news is that this technology can be even more impactful in building those relationships.”

From his personal experience as a veteran officer, McFarlin has noticed that more and more police officers are seeing body cameras as a benefit rather than a hindrance. Most department policies, including McFarlin’s in South Carolina, allow officers to view their footage (although only certain individuals have editing or redaction privileges). This can be especially useful to ensure accuracy when officers write up incident reports.

[Related: Should Police View Body-Worn Cameras Before Writing a Report?]

However, there are also limits to the technology. As a certified force analyst in use of force incidents, McFarlin stresses that there can be many dynamics transpiring in fractions of a second. “The cameras aren’t the be-all and end-all of police accountability, which a lot of people think” says McFarlin. “The camera is only one piece of evidence and shouldn’t replace an objective investigation where the totality of evidence is considered.”

As more states are outfitting their officers with body cameras, there will be an increasing need to understand the limitations of cameras, the cost of implementation, and the legal requirements. However, while there may be more hurdles to overcome and agencies are still learning to navigate the new technology, it is widely accepted that body cameras may be the way forward in law enforcement.

“At the end of the day, most administrators and law enforcement executives agree that this technology has the potential to be a very good tool,” said McFarlin, “especially when it comes to relations between police and the community.”

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