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.
Wood emphasized that the pilot program is, in its simplest form, a test of the technology. “We want to see how it works with our officers. How will it support us? How does it help us with public interactions?” remarks Wood. Officers are encouraged to experiment with placement to determine best practices for where the camera should be worn. Officers have even worn the cameras while practicing physical engagement with citizens such as a chase or a takedown.
Because of the limited scope and use, the rules and policies are just as limited and narrow. If IMPD should decide to look at utilizing the body cameras across the 700-plus patrol officers in the city, then there would have to be many more discussions on policies and procedures on how the program would actually work. But Wood knows there a lot of resources out there for IMPD to look to for guidance. Over 1,000 police departments across the country already have programs in place where body cameras are being used. In 2013, the Police Executive Research Forum conducted an extensive study on body-worn cameras and published a document of recommendations and best practices for law enforcement agencies to consider.
Still, Wood believes body cameras could be very good for IMPD officers if the end result is fewer complaints and a rebuilding of trust between law enforcement and the public.
“Based on the reports that I’ve seen from other agencies, when cameras are deployed the number of complaints drops significantly,” says Wood. “So if it’s changing behavior, then that is a positive for everyone.”
Once the pilot program is complete, IMPD will look at the data, talk to the officers who used the cameras, and ultimately determine if they will pursue implementing a program department-wide. Wood speculates it was too soon to tell what direction IMPD will go.
Police agencies across the country are under pressure to increase accountability and transparency. At the end of 2014 President Obama asked Congress to appropriate $263 million for police agencies to use for the purchase of body cameras and training in an effort to restore the public’s trust in policing.
Although Indianapolis has not had an incident comparable to Ferguson, Missouri or Staten Island, New York, there is agreement among law enforcement and the general public that Indy has its own share of problems and growing mistrust among law enforcement. Body cameras are perceived to be the answer to the trust issues and image problems law enforcement has with the general public.
The American Civil Liberties Union is one of many groups watching the national conversation about body-worn cameras and their use by law enforcement.
“Our concerns are privacy concerns, but also expectations,” remarks Jane Henegar, Executive Director of the ACLU of Indiana. Henegar explains that if IMPD chooses to implement body-worn cameras, the ACLU of Indiana would like to see clear, distinct policies on their use and implementation. Questions about when the cameras would be used, how they would be used, how long the footage would be kept and who would have access to the footage would all need to be answered and made clear to the public.
“The ACLU believes the purpose of the footage would need to be clear,” says Henegar. “We support the use for police accountability and oversight. But we need to make sure it doesn’t worsen law enforcement’s relationship with the public.”
The cameras have the potential to record extremely sensitive situations. People are typically at their worst when they are interacting with law enforcement whether they are a victim, a witness or a suspect. “The video from a body camera hurts the trust factor if a citizen assumes there is a level of confidentiality in place and it turns out it’s not there,” says Henegar.
The ACLU also has specific thoughts on how long the video footage should be kept in-house. “ We recommend that the footage be retained for only weeks and not months,” says Henegar. “Keeping the video for too long makes it vulnerable to hackers and ulterior uses that could be damaging.”
Henegar reiterated that making the policies clear to the public and letting people know how long the have to make a complaint if the video is to be used as evidence would be a crucial part of the policy plan.
One issue the ACLU has with the cameras is that of intention. Is the use of the body cameras only intended to serve as a tool for accountability and transparency? Should the cameras be used for things that don’t involve police accountability, such as public relations? A perfect example is a recent dash camera video from Dover, Delaware in which Officer Jeff Davis is seen lip-synching to “Shake It Off” by Taylor Swift. After the video went viral on YouTube, Dover officials admitted the video was staged in a PR effort to show the “fun” side of law enforcement officers.
Henegar questions if that is the proper use of technology intended to capture police interactions with the public in the name of accountability. Although the incident in question is a dashboard cam, the same type of scenario could just as easily be used with a body camera. The ACLU says that should be a no-no.
Another misuse of the cameras the ACLU frowns upon would include third party surveillance. Should parking enforcement officers wear them as a supplemental way to watch the public? Should the video footage be made available to other city agencies like code enforcement, building inspectors or fire code inspectors?
Henegar says the ACLU discourages police body cameras to be used in those instances because it would be considered an invasion of privacy.
“The policy should make clear upfront that the footage is only accessible in certain situations,” says Henegar. “The policy should clearly define how the footage is to be used. How is this new capacity for technology applicable within the general rules already established?”
Ultimately, the ACLU believes the police body cameras can be effective tools in keeping officers accountable for their actions. However the policy enacted to govern the use of the cameras would be the determining factor.
While the ACLU’s mission is to defend and preserve the individual rights and freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution and laws of the United States, the Fraternal Order of Police is tasked with the objective of protecting and serving those who protect and serve. One would think that those two missions might be in direct conflict with each other, and in some instances, they are. But when it comes to concerns and questions about police body cameras, the FOP and the ACLU are on the same page, though for different reasons.
FOP local 86 president Rick Snyder says the police union was not involved in the implementation of IMPD’s pilot program, so he has more questions than answers about the use of the cameras. It also raises a red flag in his mind.
“What are the objectives?” is the most important question Snyder says needs to be asked in terms of the camera’s use. “When we ask anyone this question — IMPD, citizens, stakeholders — they have difficulty coming up with a response.”
The question goes along with the ACLU’s view that there should be a clear intention as to what the camera program is actually for. Snyder says if that question cannot be answered clearly and definitively, then any steps toward implementing a program and policy need to slow down.
Snyder agrees with the ACLU’s stance that policies regarding the use of the cameras would need to be clear from the onset. He says the objectives of what the cameras are meant to do set the tone for how they should be used. Snyder also points out that the camera and subsequent video footage has limitations that should also be taken into consideration and hopes the footage isn’t used as the sole determining factor in any investigation.
The cameras are typically worn on the chest of the officer. The camera attaches either through a buttonhole or clips to the shirt’s breast pocket. Snyder says regardless of where the camera is placed, it will always have a limited range of vision compared to the officer who is wearing it.
Consider this: an officer has to take a defensive or protective stance behind a wall, car or something else in a confrontation. That position severely limits the camera’s vision field. An officer drawing his or her weapon and holding it with both hands in front will also create an obstruction for the camera’s view. Snyder says those issues need to be taken into account if the video footage is to be used to justify or criticize an officer’s actions in a given scenario.
Like the ACLU, the FOP has questions about when the cameras are activated. The pilot program currently has the officer turn on the camera manually. Snyder says manual operation of the camera can leave the officer open to criticism for neglecting to turn the camera on in a given situation. While the obvious answer to some may be for the camera to be recording at all times, the issue of privacy comes into play.
“Do we really want the camera on while an officer is going to the bathroom?” asks Snyder. “Or should a disciplinary meeting between an officer and a supervisor while the officer is on shift be on tape? Leaving the camera running all the time is not an easy fix.”
Snyder’s biggest fear is that video footage from body cameras will be used as a substitute for good old-fashioned police work. “Body cameras should not be used as a one-stop-shop for investigative work,” says Snyder.
Some may think that a video tells the undeniable truth of the situation it captures; Snyder reiterates the camera’s limitations and inability to give a 360-degree picture.
“Videos are a 2-D representation of a 3-D incident,” says Snyder. He points to how an officer has the ability to turn his or her head and view a scene from all directions while the camera can only record what is in its range of vision.
He also says a camera is only a record of 2 of the 5 human senses and can never replace an officer’s sense of smell, touch, and taste. “If an officer is touching an individual during questioning and feels that person tense up when asked about a weapon, that officer is going to use that information to secure a situation and look for a weapon. No camera in the world is going to get that,” says Snyder.
But what about officer accountability? Wouldn’t a video of an incident between the public and an officer definitively show if an officer is out-of-line or used too much force? Snyder says not necessarily.
“We assume that cameras are capturing events in real time but that’s not always the case,” says Snyder. “Video footage can often have subtle gaps where seconds between frames is lost. That lost time between frames could miss the glint of a knife or the flash of a gun going off. It sounds in the weeds, but it does happen and it can matter.”
And in an opposite scenario, a camera could show distinctively that an object is someone’s hand is not a weapon, but in a split-second decision an officer may truly believe otherwise.
While the list of what-ifs and possible scenarios never ends, Snyder says the bottom line is any policy regarding body cameras needs to have a clear objective for both citizens and the officers to protect everyone’s interests. “Ultimately I think what people are going to see is the outstanding and professional work that is done by our police officers every day,” says Snyder.
IMPD’s pilot program if the body cameras is set to conclude in mid-February. After that, Snyder hopes there will be a fair and honest assessment of the value of the cameras for police officers as well as the public. “The technology is here. It’s not going away,” says Snyder. “It just can’t be a one size fits all solution.”
From Lt. Wood’s perspective, anything that can help rebuild the community’s trust in law enforcement is a positive step in the right direction. “Anything we can do to rebuild that trust and bring down the walls of mistrust and bring us together to understand each other better, I think that’s a plus,” says Wood.
His sentiments echo the position of the ACLU. “If cameras are properly used, they could be a great asset and help,” says Henegar. “The last thing you want to do is undermine the public’s trust.”