The Macomb County Sheriff’s Office, located in Macomb County Michigan, uses the Watch Guard camera system for both road patrol and jail operations. In addition to viewing audio/video footage of an incident we can also access an option called record after the fact. This allows Command staff to look at video only footage of an incident approximately two minutes prior to the officer activating the record mode option.
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), there are currently 17,985 police agencies in the United States, for a total of 800,000 law enforcement officers. There doesn’t appear to be any solid numbers on BWC usage, however it appears that as of 2019 at least half of the police agencies in the U.S. were using body cameras in some capacity.
BJS reports that three surveys were done with regards to the usage of BWC’S, the Police Executive Research Forum, Major Cities Chiefs Association and the Major County Sheriff’s Association. Based on these three surveys there appeared to be a 45% increase in the use of BWC’S from 2013 thru 2018.
Based on my personal experience with BWC’S as both a Sheriff’s Deputy assigned to road patrol, a shift Sergeant and a Professional Standards command officer, I have witnessed a change in the publics behavior upon our arrival onto a scene. Many people will have their cell phones pointed in our direction and as soon as they see our cameras are activated they will ask, “is that recording”. Upon telling them that “yes I am recording in both audio and video mode”, almost if not all of the bystanders tend to stop recording and leave the area.
The Macomb County Sheriff’s Office began using the BWC for its road patrol services in April of 2017. As of this writing, the Sheriff’s office has 285 sworn officers. This number includes road patrol and command staff. Of the 285 sworn personnel, 279 have a BWC’S assigned to them.
Based on the current General Orders the BWC is to be used in ALL contact with the public. There are of course some exceptions based on the subject matter of said public contact such as a CSC interview with an alleged victim.
Currently the cost of each camera is approximately $1000.00. Although that sounds like and is quite an expense cost for the unit, the real expense is in the data storage. Currently if a video recording is not “tagged” and saved it will automatically be purged from the Watch Guard system at the 90 day mark. If said video recording is “tagged “and saved as an event it is so saved indefinitely. In 2020 the Macomb County Sheriff’s office spent $477,515.00 with regards to BWC’S. Said cost covered the replacement of 272 BWC’S, 26 transfer stations, 67 docking stations, licensing, shipping and so on.
The Macomb County Sheriff’s office currently employs 151 Correctional Deputies. Due to budget restraints, our corrections staff are required to share cameras. Therefore each employee at the start of their shift signs out a BWC via computer. Based on current general orders, corrections staff shall record all interactions with the inmate population. This includes security rounds that are conducted every 30 minutes, 24 hours a day seven days a week. There are times that the video footage from the previous shift has not been fully downloaded which eventually causes a lag in the system. Secondly with continuous non- stop usage the battery life becomes short, often times resulting in the BWC powering down due to a loss of battery power during the Corrections officers shift. As a result of the BWC powering down, the corrections officer must leave their assigned duty stations, report to booking and check out a different BWC. From a Murphy’s Law stand point, the BWC will of course power down just prior to or during an incident and the needed footage will not be captured. This of course becomes a problem and makes it appear as if the agency experiencing these issues conveniently doesn’t have needed footage. Fortunately most situations will involve more than one corrections deputy therefore BWC footage would be captured by one of the other officers involved in the incident. In addition there are video only overheard cameras throughout the confines of the jail that would also provide video coverage of any given incident.
I have been assigned to the office of Professional Standards for the past three years. During that time the Macomb County Sheriff’s Office has continued its use of BWC’S. Both our road patrol and corrections staff along with command staff are using BWC’S during all three shifts on a daily basis.
Based on the usage of BWC’S, officer complaints have decreased since 2017. In addition there are times that upon showing a complainant the BWC footage they retract their complaint as they see the incident didn’t occur as they recalled it or as it was reported to them. For example, a parent may enter our lobby and complain as to the treatment of their teenage child during a traffic stop in which a citation was issued. In most cases after showing the video to the complaining parent, they retract their complaint. I have found that the teenage driver feels that if they say they were mistreated by the deputy that it will make receiving the ticket secondary to the parents.
The use of the Body Worn Camera can and is a double edged sword. They of course are a great tool to defend law enforcement officers. However if we as law enforcement officers are doing or saying things that are inappropriate the captured video will not serve us well.
I have always tried to perform my job as if the Sheriff himself is standing next to me. I feel that doing so keeps me in check. However as law enforcement officers we are also HUMAN. As such we react to situations based on a lot of things such as the situation at hand, personal problems that tend to follow us to work on a daily basis or the everyday things that life throws at us. Let’s face it, it takes one action, word or both to end a career in law enforcement. In addition to losing one’s career, we are seeing a greater number of officers charged criminally due to public outcry.
As to the future of the BWC in law enforcement, they are here to stay as they should be.
There was a time when a law enforcement officer’s word was golden however those days are over. With the current events throughout the world, law enforcement officers not only need to defend themselves physically but legally as well. There is an old saying “the video don’t lie”. That of course is a true statement and is both good and bad for us.
With all the reforms that appear to be on the horizon, it would be nice to see some kind of media relations reform as well. Let’s play the relevant video as a whole instead of what is popular and sells. In addition, as we discussed in class when a complainant is made against an officer that is deemed to be fabricated we need to start charging said complainants criminally. The current train of thought is that doing so would make people apprehensive when complaining. The other side of that coin is that perhaps if people knew that they were going to be charged for filing a false police report against an officer they would stop doing it. Let’s show what happened up to the incident and how law enforcement responded after said incident. I realize that based on the situation it isn’t always as easy as that. I have been in law enforcement for nearly 25 years and if I had to do it all over again I would gladly do so.