Body cameras are a buzzword, an item being hailed as the answer to all of the law enforcement world’s problems according to activists, politicians, and the media. Footage from a police body camera can be used to scrutinize every action taken by an officer during an incident that took place in seconds-from a comfortable seat in a cozy office for eternity. The reality is much different.
The goal of these cameras depends on who you are and what agenda you are pushing.
According to the thought process of the activist, these cameras will reduce the number of times officers use force, or will catch them doing something wrong.
The political side has hailed them as a magical entity that replaces the need for training, and will capture everything about a controversial incident.
The media loves body cameras, because the first two groups have made them such an issue. Not to mention that video of an officer involved shooting captured on a body camera makes for a great story.
At my agency, we’ve been wearing body cameras for about two years. Our purchase of the cameras had nothing to do with the incident in Ferguson, MO, it was planned well before that goat rope was tied. We’ve had cameras in our patrol vehicles for quite a while, starting with trunk recording VHS based cameras that evolved into a digital based, wireless platform.
We used the dash cameras for a lot of things and continue to do so today. They are a great tool for a field training officer to use as “game film” for the new officer. More seasoned officers can use the footage in that way to critique themselves as well as to refresh their memories about an incident, either while completing paperwork or before testifying in court. As a Lieutenant, I’ve used these videos to investigate citizen complaints-finding that most of the time the officer did nothing close to what the complainant said.
The transition to body worn cameras was a natural progression for us. Initially we were actually fairly excited to have them. Everyone believed the hype that a body camera would be a great addition to the toolbox. The reality has been a mixed bag at best.
There are several factors that make or break a video from a police body camera.
The first issue is whether the camera is mounted in an area on the uniform that offers a decent view. If the camera is too high or too low the video is pretty pointless. Most of the time, officers place them on the middle of their chests. The issue is that our hands are constantly moving in front of the camera to retrieve pens, paper, or simply gesturing with the hands. Even if the height is correct, if the camera isn’t totally secure-and it never is-the video captured by it is shaky and makes the Blair Witch Project look like it was shot from a vise by comparison.
The second issue of capturing anything of value from a body worn camera comes from the narrow field of view that is offered. Starting in the academy, we brow beat the officers to “blade” their bodies while speaking with citizens by turning into an “interview stance” which places the hip mounted firearm as far away as possible from the citizen. Every year there are cops who are killed by their own firearms after some mope disarms them. Keeping an officer’s sidearm where it belongs is of the utmost importance.
This bladed interview stance, being a basic tenet of officer safety, turns the body camera away from the person being interviewed. As a result, some have started facing up with interviewees to effectively video the interaction rather than maintaining an appropriate and simple officer safety practice. I’ve personally instructed my own officers to follow their training rather than sacrifice it for a good video.
Even if those factors aren’t at issue, a body camera doesn’t perceive anything out of the field of view. A well trained cop certainly does. In a potentially lethal encounter there are a lot of factors that don’t readily present themselves in a body camera’s recording area. They don’t record the faint sounds, the smells, or the other things only perceived by an officer’s sixth sense as an incident unfolds.
Another consideration is that the cameras we are issued do not have a great track record of functioning properly. They do not have the battery power or storage capacity to last an entire shift. They randomly begin recording without the knowledge of the officer who is wearing it. Many of the videos we store are of an officer making fluid adjustments at urinals, or seated on a toilet depositing a grumpy shit.
We have no ability to delete these videos because the system was built in a manner that being able to delete a video would allow some sort of tampering-which would make it seem as though we could delete unfavorable footage. So the restroom footage remains on a hard drive until it is written to a disk to be stored to infinity and beyond as evidentiary fetish pornography.
Since our officers have no idea when a camera could start recording on their chests, many have started removing them until they are dispatched to a call. This measure prevents the accidental recording of personal activities, but it also means the officer has to return the camera to his or her body quickly in the event that something happens that is not a dispatched call. In those split second incidents, many times the camera is forgotten as the officer attends to the business at hand.
The failure of the equipment to operate as designed, which leads to the logical removal of the camera, can then lead to an officer being disciplined for not following our policy which is to record all interactions with the general public.
Even if the officer is blessed with the unicorn-like, correctly functioning body camera, he or she has to remember to activate it.
When you are confronted with an “oh shit” moment, the last thing on your mind is flicking a button on your chest. Not doing it, and failing to record an incident that is a critical incident can have implications in the department and potentially the media if it becomes a controversial topic.
The constant Monday morning quarterbacking of body worn cameras creates serious problems. Just in this past week, an officer from my agency hesitated while armed with a patrol rifle as he was confronting an armed drug dealer who had also been accused of robbing a customer at gun point.
After the dealer fled on foot and the officer gave chase, the dealer spun around and removed a pistol from his waistband. The officer told me that in that split second moment, his thoughts weren’t on shot placement, sight alignment, or trigger pull. Instead, he was concerned about his body camera and whether our agency would support him if he engaged the suspect with justified lethal force.
Fortunately in this encounter, the suspect came into contact with a veteran officer who was ready to defend his own life and already had the suspect at rifle point. The suspect made a wise decision and did not orient the weapon at the officer. He undoubtably decided that he was going to lose his life if he continued and decided that he’d take his chances in court.
Critics and activists would hail this as a victory for body cameras. As a law enforcement supervisor and instructor, I view it as a very real problem. I do not want to make next of kin notifications to the family of one of my officers because he or she hesitated out of concern for a body camera or departmental support.
When it comes to my life or yours and you are threatening me, I’ll endure the trial of public perception. I’d love to say that I wouldn’t think of the body camera in that moment, but I can’t say for certain in this day and age.
Body cameras do have a place in law enforcement. There are platforms that counter most of these issues, but they are expensive. Short of equipping every officer with a film crew that follows them everywhere, ala the “Cops” tv show, we’ll never get a full view at a scene.
Our cameras do fairly well with capturing audio at scenes, which is helpful when complaints or criminal charges are filed. They are really good for playing back the occasional comedic performances of drunks for the enjoyment of the squad at roll call. They’re well suited for the more routine calls. However they will always fall short when the feces and fans start making contact with each other.
Of course there are random idiots who decide to speak directly to the camera rather than the officer wearing it. Other than those folks at the shallow end of the gene pool, I haven’t noticed any discernible difference in the behavior of officers and the public at scenes with body cameras.
A body camera is equipment, and it is not anywhere close on my list of priorities as I suit up for work. It’s by no means the solution to all of the problems in modern policing. I will not tolerate or expect any of the officers assigned to my squad to concern themselves with taking on a role as a combat cameraman rather than doing their actual job.
That’s all for now, I need to charge up my body camera so I can go patrol the Donut.