Community Voices On Body-Worn Cameras 

Stephen Rickman, BWC TTA Lead and Subject Expert

 

Each jurisdiction and law enforcement agency that deploys body-worn cameras (BWCs) has a unique history, police culture, and circumstances. Community voices, like advocacy and faith-based organizations, police advisory groups, the media, social service organizations, and other community stakeholders, are important to consider when deploying BWCs. In some jurisdictions, these voices have provided the impetus for a program, scrutinized operations, and moved BWC policies in the direction of greater transparency.

Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department

In 2009, the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department (LVMPD) faced increased public scrutiny after a series of police shootings, many of which involved unarmed suspects. This concern led LVMPD to seek out US Department of Justice (DOJ) support to enact change. DOJ supported LVMPD in updating their policies, procedures, and training to better prepare officers to make decisions about the application of deadly force. Many members of the public were skeptical about LVMPD’s reporting of the facts about critical incidents that resulted in death. Many believed that incident descriptions written by police would nearly always justify the deadly force application. So, local advocacy groups recommended that, in addition to changing the agency’s use of force policy and training, LVMPD adopt BWCs. Consistent with recommendations that BWC programs be carefully implemented though pilot programs, an approach then being promoted by police organizations and DOJ, LVMPD elected to deploy BWCs in a limited manner to first test feasibility and effects before moving forward with wider deployment.

DOJ subsequently funded research by CNA, which incorporated a randomized experimental design, to assess the effects of BWCs on the number of citizen complaints and use of force incidents by officers. The research also addressed cost-benefit analysis. In 2017, CNA reported its findings, which revealed significant reductions in complaints against officers and use of force incidents. The study also pointed to reductions in the time and resources required to investigate and resolve complaints and use of force incidents for the officers wearing cameras. These reductions produced substantial cost savings for LVMPD.[1]

While community members found some comfort in these findings, many citizens still raised concerns about whether LVMPD sufficiently enforced camera activation during citizen encounters, especially those involving use of force. Gary Peck, representing the local chapter of the NAACP, praised LVMPD for its deployment and participation in the study but expressed specific concerns about how LVMPD was ensuring compliance with camera activation requirements.[2]

 In response to these concerns, LVMPD has aggressively addressed transparency concerns in its handling and release of videos. For example, LVMPD moves swiftly after a critical incident, often making video footage of a critical incident resulting in death available within 72 hours. A senior official, sometimes the sheriff, narrates the public release of the footage at a press conference, explaining the situation and providing context. This practice has some exceptions, but it is generally followed and is now a community expectation. This practice not only provides more transparency; it builds community trust. LVMPD officials believe this approach often provides the department the benefit of the doubt when questionable or controversial shootings occur. These steps have quieted community concerns and changed public expectations.

Albuquerque Police Department

The Albuquerque Police Department (APD) began using BWCs in 2010, encouraged in part by community voices advocating for police reform. Chief among community concerns were perceptions of inappropriate use of force, especially toward mentally unstable and homeless populations. APD became one of the first major police departments to deploy BWC technology. In 2012, the department issued special orders requiring all officers to activate their BWCs during citizen encounters. In early 2015, local advocates continued to raise concerns about the consistency of BWC use by officers. That same year, researchers from the University of New Mexico studied the program’s implementation.[3] They concluded that officers were confused by the BWC policy and that there were uneven patterns in camera activations for citizen encounters.

In September 2015, the Bureau of Justice Assistance awarded APD a $250,000 BWC grant, which allowed the department to update its technology and revise its BWC policy.[4]

In 2016, media reports suggested that APD staff tampered with video footage, raising concerns about the integrity of APD-provided video footage.[5]  APD later issued a report indicating that there was no evidence that original footage of any critical incident was altered, but it was inconclusive as to whether copies distributed to others were altered. This report did little to restore community confidence.

Following a change in administration and the appointment of a new chief of police, the department renewed efforts to enhance community engagement. Today, APD is revisiting its BWC policies to expedite video release when possible. Albuquerque’s six Community Policing Councils, covering each of APD’s command areas, are being encouraged to provide input to these revised policies as well.

Chris Sylvan, who coordinates community outreach efforts for APD, said, “Most residents are now very supportive of the body-worn camera program and question more and more why the local sheriff’s department and suburban jurisdictions don’t require their officers to wear them.”

Community voices in Albuquerque will likely continue to serve in a “watch dog” role in the APD’s BWC program and will help shape future policy to enhance transparency.[6]

Conclusion

The examples presented here illustrate the journeys of two departments with BWCs. Every department’s journey is different, but there are some commonalities. Community concerns usually focus on compliance with activation requirements, timing of the release of video footage for critical incidents, and the overall integrity of the program operations. Studies in these and other jurisdictions suggest that communities tend to support BWC deployment and expansion, particularly when community input is sought and considered. Insights from the APD and LVMPD deployments, findings from the 2017 Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) study[7] on community perceptions of BWCs, and other works suggest the following:

  • Community voices often play a major role in the impetus for BWC programs and often provide continued support during ongoing operations.
  • Community voices can play a “watch dog” role and sound alarms when the BWC program implementation is out of alignment with program goals and community considerations.
  • Community voices can play a meaningful role in shaping BWC policy by offering citizen perspectives and building public support.
  • Community voices can be called upon for specific input on privacy parameters, guidance for video release, and the policies and rules for emerging related technologies (e.g., drones).
  • Community voices generally support BWC programs, but they do not view these programs as panaceas for broader police performance and trust issues.
  • Police should embrace the community as a valued partner in the planning, implementation, and ongoing management of BWC programs.

Mr. Rickman has decades of experience in the management and direction of government programs and projects impacting all levels, from the federal government to local communities. He is a Senior Advisor for the Strategies for Policing Innovation Initiative TTA program at CNA and serves in a similar capacity for the US Department of Justice, OJP Diagnostic Center.


[1] Braga, A., Coldren, J.R., Sousa, W., Rodriguez, D., and Alper, O. 2017. The benefits of body-worn cameras: New findings from a randomized controlled trial at the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department. Retrieved from: https://www.cna.org/cna_files/pdf/IRM-2017-U-016112-Final.pdf

[2] Lacanlale, R. “Study of body cams shows drop in use of force by Las Vegas police.” Las Vegas Review-Journal. Nov. 17, 2017. Retrieved from: https://www.reviewjournal.com/crime/study-of-body-cams-shows-drop-in-use...

[3] Guerin, P., Cathey, D., Pacheco, C., Tonigan, A., Adams, A., Torres, S., and Coleman, E. 2016. City of Albuquerque Police Department on Body Camera System Research. The University of New Mexico.

[4] KRQE Media. “Albuquerque Police Department receives $250k body-worn camera grant.” KRQE. Sept. 21, 2015. Retrieved from: https://www.krqe.com/news/news-briefs/albuquerque-police-department-receives-250k-body-worn-camera-grant/1009179370

[5] Boetel, R. “Police camera expert says APD videos were edited.” Albuquerque Journal. May 12, 2017. Retrieved from: https://www.abqjournal.com/1002389/expert-police-vids-were-edited.html

[6] Sullivan, C. Personal Communication. Aug. 27, 2018.

[7] Police Executive Research Forum. 2017. “Citizen Perceptions of Body-Worn Cameras: A Randomized Controlled Trial.”

Topic Tags: