The Hogansville, GA, Police Department first implemented body-worn cameras in the middle of 2008 when former Chief of Police Moses Ector purchased two body cameras for a trail run at an International Chiefs of Police Conference. When we first deployed the cameras, there were two that were shared by the shifts. The cameras were not able to keep up with the charging requirements to remain functional so they were briefly decommissioned and spent a few months shelved. Chief Ector reissued one camera to me full time as a test subject to gauge the effectiveness of the BWC.
This webinar examined several issues related to regional approaches to BWC program design and implementation, including the benefits from a regional approach, compromises that will likely need to be made, and planning considerations. The webinar featured a brief presentation on general issues regarding regional models in law enforcement, presentations from several BWC PIP sites that have successfully implemented regional BWC programs, and provided an overview of the key considerations that agencies should attend to during the planning phase of a regional BWC implementation.
In April 2018,the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) and its civilian-member Board of Police Commissioners made a major change to its body-worn camera (BWC) policy: the department will release video footage in ”critical incidents.”
A year in the making, the new policy applies to: 1) officer-involved shootings, 2) a use of force leading to death or serious injury, 3) all in-custody deaths, and 4) any other police encounter for which releasing the video is in the public interest. The department will release footage within 45 days of the incident. The policy includes protections for juveniles and victims of specific crimes, defines privacy considerations, takes into account the safety of officers and witnesses, and protects the integrity of active investigations, confidential sources, and constitutional rights of the accused.
What are the ramifications for the LAPD and for the rest of the country with this shift in policy? Will it create problems for ongoing investigations? Will it improve the perception of transparency and accountability? Does it violate the right to privacy? Does the policy go far enough—or too far? How will we know if it is effective? Definitive answers to these questions will not be known for some time, but the questions are important to the police, the public, and policies that are being drawn up and followed throughout the country.
Will the release of video footage create problems for on-going investigations?
It is possible that the release of footage could create problems for investigations, but not to the degree that police think. The release of information to the public about a critical event often raises concerns because police and prosecutors fear a “trial in the media” or fear that people will be biased against a suspect or an officer and thus make it difficult to seat a fair and impartial jury, but these fears do not always manifest themselves and are hard to quantify. In a courtroom setting (if a case is filed), voir dire allows for questioning of potential jurors about their biases and preconceptions.
Further, video footage is only one facet of an investigation of an officer-involved shooting or other critical event. Many other parts of the investigations need not be released. For example, the department may be informed more by eyewitnesses and statements from bystanders and the officers involved, there might be more extensive physical evidence, and there could be other factors in an incident that remain closed to the public.
Video footage may not—and probably will not—tell the full story of a critical event. The camera does not see everything that an officer sees. The location of the camera (on the officer's chest, shoulder, or sunglasses), and the officer’s position during an event, determine what the camera will capture. People, houses, or vehicles to the left or to the right of an officer may not be videotaped because the officer did not turn in that direction. The lighting could be poor; the sound could be inaudible. Thus, other evidence provides important context for what happened and why.
Will it improve the perception of transparency and accountability?
It should, because it addresses critical incidents—those that the public has the most concerns about. The impetus for equipping police officers with BWCs burgeoned following the tragic events of Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Missouri, on August 9, 2014. At the time, BWCs were touted as the means to promote greater transparency and a basis for building trust between the police and the community. This rationale created expectations that police departments would release BWC footage immediately after a critical event, such as an officer-involved shooting.
But we soon learned that it is not quite that simple. There are implications relative to public interest versus the judicial process of adjudicating an incident, all of which are surrounded by the need for privacy considerations and the need to solve cases. Prosecutors and the police were wedded to the notion that if there is a pending criminal investigation, all bets were off relating to the release of what was considered evidentiary material, but this perspective has changed. Police agencies and officers are more accustomed to using cameras and reviewing footage after making arrests. Further, they are seeing the positive results of the presence of cameras as civilian complaints and uses of force decline.
The release of footage for critical incidents appears to be a part of the evolution of the acceptance of BWCs and, more importantly, suggests that transparency and accountability are perhaps more important than evidentiary considerations. San Diego Deputy District Attorney Damon Mosler provides a prosecutor’s perspective on the evidentiary value of BWC footage in a separate In View Commentary.
Does the policy violate the right to privacy?
It appears that the answer is ”no,”’ as the policy protects individuals including officers, bystanders, and witnesses. There should always be certain protections afforded to the individuals involved, including the officer and his or her family, the victims or survivors of a police incident, those who are willing to come forward as witnesses, and those who are inadvertently involved. Technology that effectively redacts video and audio, while not perfect, is available and can protect individuals. By limiting the release of footage to critical incidents, rather than all encounters, the need to redact every frame for every incident is not an issue. The chances of a person being identified through voice or sight are considerably reduced.
Does the policy go far enough—or too far?
To some, the policy does not go far enough. To others, it goes too far. Some advocates want all video footage released regardless of its importance or value. The argument here is for total transparency, granting the public the ability to hear, see, and assess the behavior of all police officers in every encounter. Others strongly hold to the belief that investigations and privacy should not be compromised or outbalanced by transparency and accountability; releasing video will lead to cases “lost” and privacy diminished.
Releasing all video places massive burdens cities and police departments. The technology supporting review, redaction, and release of video has not caught up with the proliferation of videos; as a result, reviewing, redacting, and releasing all footage is an extremely labor-intensive and costly enterprise that has not been accounted for in the staffing and budgeting patterns that support BWCs. Consider that at a single critical event, 50 or more videos may be recorded and would need to be addressed.
How will we know about the effectiveness of the policy?
Effectiveness is measured in terms of implementation and impact, and through rigorous research. While protocols for implementation have not yet been written, this step is critical. We will see what happens as the LAPD rolls out an implementation plan.
“Upon further review…”
Of the five largest police departments in the country, the LAPD is the first to lay out specific guidelines for releasing video footage for critical events. The policy reads: "It is the policy of the Los Angeles Police Department that video evidence in the Department's possession of critical incidents involving LAPD officers be released to the public within 45 days of the incident."
When we compared LAPD's policy to those of the New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and Houston police departments, we found that the LAPD policy goes further in defining critical incidents, video sources, privacy protections, notifications of persons who are in the video, and date of release. In the largest departments—New York and Chicago—release of video footage is dependent upon the type of incident and Freedom of Information Act requirements (New York) or state law (Chicago). In both jurisdictions, individuals may request footage, but there are specific requirements for obtaining the footage. In a high-profile case, the New York Police Department and Attorney General will confer about its release, but there is no mandate for release of video footage. The Brennan Center shows the breadth of policies regarding the release of video.
The LAPD policy could serve as a model for other large agencies, but its ramifications need to be carefully studied. Answering these empirical questions would significantly further our understanding of transparency, accountability, and privacy.
This webinar featured National District Attorneys Association (NDAA) Executive Director Nelson Bunn and San Diego Deputy District Attorney and subject expert Damon Mosler. They discussed topics that police departments and prosecutors’ offices should consider during BWC planning and implementation, as well as ways to keep prosecutors involved in the BWC discussion after implementation is complete.
In the first article (http://www.routefifty.com/2015/09/police-body-cameramusts/121502/) of our three-part series on widespread deployment of body-worn cameras (BWCs) by law enforcement, we argued that policymakers and law enforcement leaders face a broad and complex set of decisions that must be made now. These vital decisions divide into the same basic categories as most big data or technology policy questions:
This model policy is created as a guide to prosecutors who are working with law enforcement agencies to implement body-worn cameras. The policy includes “Use Notes,” which present and consider viable alternative policies that may exist for a particular issue. Also accompanying the model policy is a checklist outlining the many issues that should be addressed in a body worn camera policy. This model evolved from a policy originally created by a subcommittee of the CDAA Foundation, headed by David Angel of the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office.
When police officers hear or read the word, “compliance” as it relates to policy, what often comes to mind is, “what do I have to do to avoid getting into trouble?” For various reasons, compliance appears to be somewhat more challenging for police agencies when it comes to their body-worn camera (BWC) programs. We are all learning that introducing BWCs entails much more than just providing officers a new technology. Numerous challenges and dynamics present themselves when agencies implement their BWCs, including costs, storage, community expectations, officer concerns, coordinating with prosecutors, and ensuring organizational compliance to policy, to name a few.
The policing profession receives a great deal of public scrutiny and input from various sources regarding expectations for behavior and conduct. Despite some public and media narratives, in my experience, police officers overwhelmingly want to “get it right” when it comes to appropriate conduct. The reality is that there are few, if any, other professions that provide such detailed, prescribed, and mandated rules and regulations (policy) for how their employees must behave while also outlining the consequences for failing to behave appropriately. Despite some perceptions, the law enforcement profession has a tremendous amount of checks and balances in place for accountability. More and more agencies recognize that BWCs provide a platform for demonstrating this responsibility. We are finding that while officers were once skeptical or resistant to wearing BWCs, those same officers now insist on having them as part of their everyday toolkit. An FY 2015 Bureau of Justice Assistance BWC Policy and Implementation Project (PIP) site notes that it has seen significant changes, with officers embracing—and now even demanding—BWCs, leading to improvements with organizational compliance. The site even goes as far as having its dispatchers verbally remind the officers to activate their BWCs when they arrive on scene to a call to help ensure higher rates of compliance.
Compliance with policy is needed for several reasons, including the following:
- Provide a clear understanding of the organization’s expectations for the officers behavior
- Demonstrate to the community that police are accountable, and have specific rules and guidelines that they must follow in order not to abuse the powers that they possess
- Help officers navigate all the tasks, responsibilities, and complexities they face with the support of their department
Throughout the first three years of the BWC PIP grant program, agencies continued to identify the topic of compliance as complex and challenging for their BWC programs.
SOUND AND PROMISING PRACTICES
As with most policy adherence challenges, BWC compliance can be broken down into several identifiable and influencing factors, including, but not limited to:
- Identifying the Issue
Identifying the Issue – As simple as it sounds, it is imperative to determine why officers and staff are not complying with BWC policy before action can be taken to address the issue. Identifying the root causes of and contributors to noncompliance may take some effort and strategy. For example, what are the specific reasons that officers have difficulty complying with (or are unwilling to comply with) such BWC policy components as activation, notification, equipment familiarity, categorization, or storage? The issue may have to do with training, with the way the policy is written, or with equipment problems; it may be self-evident or it may take some digging and outreach to officers.
Policy – Feedback from numerous sites indicates that the clarity of an agency’s policy may be the most significant contributor to noncompliance. Do not underestimate the importance of establishing a comprehensive policy that is clear, concise, detailed, and very specific to your agency’s capacities. Obtain input and feedback from the ranks on their ability to comprehend and capability to follow the policy requirements. Understand and embrace that a sound policy is fluid and should be receptive to revisions and updates. Also consider that a policy which allows for a great deal of officer discretion will likely result in variations in officer compliance. Finally, consider that BWC policy should be periodically reviewed and updated as necessary, as the technology, related state regulations, and case law are subject to change.
Training – Inadequate training has been identified as a significant contributor for some agencies who experience BWC compliance issues. Good training practices start off by demonstrating, emphasizing, and reinforcing the importance of BWC policy adherence for both the organization and the individual officer directly from the highest levels of the organization. Educating your organization that BWCs are more than just “another technology” can be challenging, but we have seen numerous recent national examples where officers and departments were scrutinized, criticized, and disciplined for compliance failure issues related to BWC activation. Training on BWC policy requirements should begin with organizational implementation, include pre-service training, and be reinforced by in-service trainings with periodic and consistent updates. Recognize the value of scenario-based training with BWC activation and build it into pre-service and in-service tactical trainings. This will reinforce muscle memory and BWC activation while under stress. Agencies should also consider the effect of actual BWC video footage as a training aid. Observing colleagues exhibiting positive behavior can have a significant effect on less-experienced officers who may lack confidence but are unwilling to ask for help.
Supervision – Chiefs and supervisors should determine whether the officers understand the benefits of having BWCs, decide if noncompliance is related to fear and mistrust of them, and address that mistrust directly by communicating with the officers. Supervisors should also consider the fact that officers may lack confidence to record their actions; this may be connected to a lack of job knowledge.