The invention of Body Worn Camera (BWC) technology has undoubtedly revolutionized law enforcement in a both a negative and positive manner. Prior to the widespread us of this technology a law enforcement officers word alone was deemed truthful on face value. In the present-day climate especially, this is not the case. Now if there is not video it did not happen, or the law enforcement community is covering up some malfeasance. It also can portray a use of force in a manner that while justified will look “ugly” to some one that is a civilian. BWC technology also has a profound impact on department budgets therefore cutting costs in other valuable line items. Conversely, it has been my experience as an administrator of the BWC system for a department of sixty sworn officers the technology exonerates more officer than it convicts. BWC’s can also be that “little voice” in an officer’s head while serving the community.
In a twenty-five-year career on law enforcement many things have changed the way American Policing is administered. The BWC is probably the most impactful technological advancement in policing since fingerprints and DNA. One factor that in my opinion is negative is the loss of automatic credibility that LEO had prior to the prevalence of easy access video technology. Our profession has seen prosecutors stop charging offenders with DUI if there is not video accompanying the case. On one occasion I had experienced trying a DUI offense at a jury trial where there was a total of two witnesses, myself and the defendant. The jury was out less than thirty minutes and it came back guilty. That would not happen now because the DA would have never gone to trial.
In the previous example there was in car video, but it was the old vault VHS system that stopped working due to heat. There was no assumption of wrongdoing, no assumption of a coverup and no assumption of any nefarious acts on my part as the officer or the department who employed me. With every incident being selectively edited and played on the continuous loop of liberal media and selective social media editing almost anything can look “bad.” The public is now only seeing, therefore knowing what Law Enforcement has seen and known for a century. Police work can be an ugly business. There is no way to make a fight for your life look anything but ugly! The public has been shielded from this for years. Testifying that an officer shot the suspect with two bullets to center mass is much less traumatic for the public (jury) than seeing the blood and carnage of a critical incident. LEO are usually very quick to be desensitized to traumatic scene or they do not last long in this field.
The BWC devices are relatively cheap while the storage I very expensive. Recently the Knoxville Police Department implemented BWC and a compatible in car system. The up-front implementation cost was close to five million dollars. The store and connectivity are going to cost almost one million dollars a year. There are also recurring cost associated with replacement schedules and maintenance. Most small agencies while small cannot afford this cost. Do we hold the agency with less money to the same standard as more affluent agencies? Logically, absorbing this cost has to come from other areas of operation of the agency, the source for this is likely training and equipment. As a profession can we afford to have poorly trained or minimally trained officers every move on video? Do we as a profession are we setting our young officers up for failure right out of the academy?
In my experience, I have found officer have been exonerated at a far higher rate from BWC footage than have had sustained complaints. It is very easy for a supervisor to take a complaint on an officer and view the video or show the complainant the video and unfound a complaint. Honest officers do not care to have their actions on video, and most will tell you it has not changed the way they conduct their calls for service. For anyone involved in a critical incident the armchair tacticians are present and usually the loudest voice in the room once the chaos is over. Now, those critics are on YouTube, Twitter and CNN. The pressure on officers to make the right decision in a fraction of a second is a tremendous burden. It can also be an incentive to always do the right thing because someone (BWC) is always watching.
Part of my speech for new officers is there is a camera everywhere and you are a rolling billboard. The car, uniform and profession draw attention from everyone, all the time. Act like, speak like and conduct yourself in a manner your mother, grandmother or preacher would approve your actions. When the time comes for a critical incident as a profession, we get a split second to make a correct decision and a lifetime to live with that decision. The implementation of BWC in Policing is a positive advancement. The public has had a rude awakening to the use of force by officers in part to our lack of providing education to public who will ultimately be our judge.