The future of law enforcement, criminal prosecution, civil actions and internal investigations will absolutely include the deployment of body worn cameras. Many agencies have already deployed these cameras in the field and there is a strong push to deploy them nationwide. Of course, the issue that every agency in the country faces is their budget.
Body worn cameras have proven their worth since they were first introduced. Agencies have reported that their citizen complaints have reduced. Many times, complaints are exonerated by reviewing the video footage. Use of Force has been reduced as human behavior generally improves when they know their interaction is being recorded. This is true for those on both sides of the camera.
There is an assumption out there by citizens, activists, and even some law enforcement that the video does not lie. This is a challenge that we have seen in the age of body worn cameras and will not be easily overcome. Body cameras are not human. Body cameras are limited depending where they are located on the officer. Understanding that views can be blocked, and angles are incredibly important is paramount when reviewing video footage. The recording is an objective documentation of very subjective events. Cameras can not record the feelings, decisions and situational awareness levels of an officer.
Aside from the cons, body worn cameras are an invaluable tool when used as a piece of the entire puzzle. Situations where there are conflicting statements may be resolved by comparing the statements against the footage. Situations where there are no other witnesses may be resolved by viewing the footage. Multiple camera angles from multiple officers may tell a more complete story than by viewing a single camera. It is important for agencies to train their investigators to understand the limitations of video footage and to place the pieces of the whole puzzle together.
Another challenge that many agencies will face when obtaining body worn cameras is the storage and management of the video footage. Policies and state laws will dictate how long footage must be kept. Footage that is evidence will likely have to be stored separately or at least identified separately from the routine footage recorded throughout an officer’s day. Some states have very liberal public disclosure laws. My home agency did the research and determined that the program will require an additional supervisor and four public disclosure personnel to manage the footage, respond to requests and redact any applicable components. Since all footage must be viewed, the formula is approximately 10 minutes of staff time is necessary for every 30 seconds of footage recorded.
For my home agency in Washington State, we have presented a decision package to our county council three times now for the implementation of a body worn camera program. Though the initial purchase is not extremely expensive in the government world, the ongoing maintenance and increase in staff is more than can be absorbed within the sheriff’s budget. Our council has agreed that there is a need and has approved the purchase of this equipment but has not provided any funding for the program.
There are very few agencies in the United States that have discretionary budget categories. Some have purchased body worn cameras anyway, some have transferred funds from other programs, and some have had budget increases for the program. Regardless, this is an incredibly expensive undertaking. If the program is not managed properly agencies could face significant fines or penalties.
In closing, body worn cameras are the future of law enforcement. Many special interest groups are advocating the deployment of cameras. Many governing bodies are demanding the deployment of cameras. I fully support the deployment of video cameras. What is most important is the proper development of the program. This must include funding, policy, and staffing. Body worn cameras, if properly deployed, are an invaluable tool for todays law enforcement.