Outfitting law enforcement officers with body cameras. It’s a concept that is gaining momentum across the country and has police agencies scrambling to make it a reality. The technology has been around for years. But only in the last few has the outcry for greater transparency and accountability within law enforcement grown to such decibels that it can’t be ignored.
The concept seems logical and simple. Police officers wear the body cameras to record their interactions with the general public for the purpose of accountability and transparency. But is it really that easy? Can the use of body cameras remove all doubts and restore the public’s trust in those who are given the power to serve and protect the public from itself? The answer might be more complex than it seems.
The Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department is nearing the end of a 60-day pilot program studying the use of body cameras. The program, supervised by Lt. Mark Wood, began Dec. 15. “Six cameras are being used by our traffic unit and six cameras are with rookies and their FTOs (field training officers) in the training program for a total of 12 cameras,” says Wood. Because of the decision to use the cameras during traffic stops only, the Northwest district became home base for the cameras.
“We decided to concentrate the pilot only on traffic stops because that is the one interaction with the public that it appears that there are really no significant legal issues regarding cameras at a traffic stop,” says Wood.
Traffic stops occur in public places where anyone has the right to use a camera and could be filming anyway, including an interaction with law enforcement. In fact, Wood says patrol officers typically assume someone is watching them during a traffic stop, so video from a body camera fits right in with public surveillance.
In the pilot, the cameras are operated manually. Once an officer decides he is going to initiate a traffic stop, he turns the camera on.
“The camera should be turned on before the traffic stop begins,” says Wood. “Then we should be able to see the car pulling over, the officer approaching the car and the driver and their entire interaction.”
The cameras are not to be turned off until everything has concluded, the car pulls away and the officer returns to his vehicle. If the traffic stop escalates and results in an arrest, the camera remains on, filming everything until the arrest is complete, the suspect is taken to lock-up and the officer leaves the scene.
At the end of the shift, the officer returns to the district and puts the camera in a docking station to charge and dump its video footage on to the server for viewing and storage. For now, any random footage the camera records (such as, for instance, an officer accidentally turning it on or leaving it on and filming ambient footage) is kept for seven days. All traffic stop footage is kept for 180 days. Any footage that is related to an officer complaint or a criminal case is considered evidence and then kept indefinitely until the case or situation is completely resolved.