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Strategies for Body-Worn Cameras

The Michael Brown incident in Ferguson, Mo. has prompted much speculation regarding the use of officer-worn cameras. The disputed circumstances surrounding the shooting led to civil disorder and protests that went on for several weeks. Many feel that had the officer been equipped with a body-worn camera, the evidence would have been more clear-cut, resulting in a quicker resolution of the case and eased tensions throughout the city.

Following the incident, a petition asking the White House to create a law requiring all police to wear cameras reached 100,000 signatures within the first week. Acknowledging that the “simmering distrust” between police departments and minority communities extends well beyond Ferguson, President Obama has asked for $263 million in funding for police body cameras and training as part of a program designed to improve relations between the two groups.



Pending congressional approval, the program includes $75 million that would be allocated specifically for the purchase of 50,000 cameras for law enforcement officers nationwide. The training portion of the funds would go toward instructing police in the responsible use of paramilitary equipment, such as assault rifles and armored personnel carriers.


Benefits, Myths, and Best Practices

In September 2014, the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Community Oriented Policing Services released a report outlining recommendations and best practices on the use of body-worn cameras by police. A survey of 254 law enforcement agencies revealed that there was a correlation between the use of body-worn cameras and the reduction of excessive use of force complaints.

The report stated that “the use of body-worn video by frontline officers has real potential to reduce complaints of incivility and use of force by officers. The footage can also exonerate officers from vexatious and malicious complaints.” This could potentially result in a reduced number of civil cases brought against the police for unlawful arrest or excessive force, an increase in guilty pleas, and lesser court costs.

However, the DOJ warned that once a police department commits to the deployment of body-worn cameras, it will be difficult to change public expectation of the availability of video records after the equipment has become a practice for the area. The report also indicated that nearly one-third of the agencies that deploy body-worn cameras have no written policies governing their use. Policy factors to consider are who would wear the cameras, where on the body the camera would be located, when and when not to record, and how data would be downloaded and stored.

In a recent article published in the online magazine


, Arizona State University School of Criminology and Criminal Justice professors Justin Ready and Jacob Young pointed to three “myths” associated with the use of officer-worn video cameras. After studying the use of cameras by the Mesa Police Department and the outcomes of interactions with citizens, they concluded that while this technology holds tremendous promise, concerns about unrealistic expectations attributed to the use of this equipment are warranted.

The first myth addresses objectivity and perception, specifically how the interpretation of a video capturing police activity differs from person to person. They point out that a video clip is part of a bigger picture, all of which may not have been captured, thereby affecting one’s contextualization and subsequent conclusion.

The second myth questions the validity of body-worn cameras as a “silver bullet” for improved officer-citizen relations. Research indicates that less than 20 percent of police calls are for felony crimes, with officer use of force occurring in only one percent of police-citizen contacts. In fact, law enforcement officers spend the majority of their time mediating disputes and assisting injured and mentally ill persons. In these situations, the use of a camera can often make matters worse for the officer, and/or create discomfort for crime victims when they are most vulnerable.

The third, and final, myth challenges the concept that use of body-worn cameras will help to reduce controversy and civil unrest. In fact, an on-officer video can actually heighten controversy by inciting those with strong convictions about the events captured on video and their expectations as to what occurred in the blind spots. Despite the challenges posed by body-worn camera technology, Jacob and Ready concluded that monitoring police behavior and establishing accountability can benefit both the public and law enforcement, as long as agencies recognize the responsibilities inherent in the use of this technology.


Increased Use of Body-Worn Camera Systems

In 2013, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department initiated plans to perform a no-cost test and evaluation of body-worn camera systems. After extensive research and a request for information procurement process, four manufacturers were selected to participate in the program. The six-month pilot program, which was implemented in September 2014, gives the LASD the opportunity to gauge the merits and drawbacks of officer-worn camera technology. Ninety-six body-worn cameras were issued to deputies at four Sheriff’s patrol stations within the county to record officer-citizen interactions and evaluate file management software options and cloud-based solutions.

Each deputy equipped with a camera was thoroughly trained on the various aspects of the device, from maintenance to video uploading to file retrieval and viewing. Each week, they are required to submit weekly evaluations to the project manager. The test phase ends in March of 2015, at which time the Sheriff’s Department will prepare an assessment report, as well as recommendations for future deployment.

Project Director Chief Bob Denham stated that the body-worn camera system is the next step in the modern evolution of law enforcement technology. “The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department is systematically researching and testing these systems, as well as developing policies and a process to manage the thousands of hours of video data that will be collected each year that will be needed in future law enforcement efforts.”

In September 2014, the Fort Myers Police Department became the first department in southwest Florida to implement the use of body-worn cameras in the field. The initial launch of 40 cameras will be used by the department’s violent crimes task force, downtown bike officers, community officers, and public housing units. The compact pager-sized cameras can be clipped on to the officer’s shirt.


According to Chief Doug Baker, the initial cost of the cameras and the accompanying technology was $70,000, the bulk of which goes toward maintaining the software and downloads. The department hopes to eventually have all front-line officers equipped with the cameras, which will mean the purchase of approximately another 65 cameras within the next few years. In addition to the body-worn cameras, the department will continue to use its in-vehicle video systems.

Fort Myers Mayor Randy Henderson believes the use of body-worn cameras in public areas will play an important role in crime fighting, adding that he is pleased with the progressive approach the city is taking. However, the department is still determining when and how the cameras should be used, and has been reviewing polices adopted by various law enforcement associations and agencies. Baker is a proponent of using them all the time, with just a few exceptions, but acknowledges that, like any new technology, changes may have to be made going forward.


Looking to the Future

The 2014 COPS report concluded that body-worn cameras, when implemented correctly, can help strengthen the policing profession by promoting agency accountability and transparency. They can also be useful tools for increasing officer professionalism, improving officer training, preserving evidence, and documenting encounters with the public. The report recommends that police agencies should adopt an incremental approach to implementing a body-worn camera program by testing the cameras in pilot programs and engaging officers and the community during implementation.

The Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) noted that because the technology is so new, there is very little data to assess the full impact regarding its effect on policing. PERF encourages agencies that are considering the use of body-worn cameras to seek guidance from other agencies that have adopted this technology. Overall, the report maintains that body-worn cameras have the potential to transform the field of policing. However, it will be the responsibility of each agency to think critically about the issues surrounding the use of body-worn cameras, and give careful consideration when developing policies and practices.


Susan Geoghegan is a freelance writer living in Naples, Fla. She can be reached at


Published in Law and Order, Feb 2015

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