No supervisor wants to get that call claiming one of their officers is being accused of misconduct. And, fortunately, those calls don’t come very often. But, when the accusation is made it has to be investigated. In 2005 our Sergeant (now Lieutenant) fielded one of those complaints and spent a significant amount of time clearing it up So he began to look into body worn cameras, a technology not used by many departments at that time. After conducting research he decided to discuss the idea with our officers, somewhat concerned some might not like the idea. Instead, he received total support!
Some media outlets, especially folks using social media, attempt to perpetuate the myth that cops hate to be video recorded performing their jobs. That’s nonsense. What police officers object to is being interfered with while doing their jobs. You want to record us? We are okay with that because we are recording too! Just don’t distract us while we are dealing with a situation that requires our complete attention. And, every situation we deal with requires our complete attention.
Body worn cameras offer many advantages to the citizens, the department as well as the officer that far outweighs any negative results. A couple of years ago our Chief received a phone call from an individual who identified himself as being African-American. The caller stated that one of our officers had pulled him over for a traffic violation and, during the stop had used racially insensitive epithets, dragged him from his car and searched him and released him after making unspecified threats. After hearing that our Chief advised the complainant that he would pull the officers body worn camera and view the video. At that moment, the complainant began to stammer and stated that the encounter might not have been as bad as he was remembering. Indeed, after reviewing the video it was discovered that the only truth to his story was that he was pulled over for a traffic violation. What could have been an ugly and prolonged investigation was cleared up in less than thirty minutes.
Body worn cameras offer many advantages beyond the protection of officers that make their use well worth the cost. Recording an incident from the perspective of the officer allows a jury to actually visualize what happened rather than simply have it described to them. Crime scenes become understandable, victims suffering more tangible and investigative process less mysterious.
However, there are some negatives associated with the cameras, mostly involving process. To start with, the officer must initiate the recording by pressing a button. This doesn’t sound too difficult however, often times things happen very quickly and the last thing he is thinking about is starting the video. But, it doesn’t take long before that becomes somewhat automatic, to the point that many times the officer has started the recording without realizing it. In addition to this, some citizens have expressed worry over being video recorded by the police. It’s true that some fear nefarious government intrusion but most are simply concerned that they may become inadvertently involved in a criminal proceeding. Finally, there are limitations to the devices themselves. Battery times can be short and available recording space is usually limited. These limitations mays cause a recording to stop mid activity leading some to assume the officer turned the device off in order to omit some activity.
Today, I asked our Lieutenant for his current thoughts on body worn cameras. I am going to paraphrase his remarks here because I believe he expressed what every responsible police officer thinks. “One of the primary benefits of body worn cameras is officer awareness. Too many officers have forgotten why we are doing this job, to help people and be a force for good in our communities. If it takes a camera on an officer to make him remember that then it’s a good thing.” Amen!