Urgent Matters

Body-worn-camera policies provide a glimpse of future technology-related challenges

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It is exciting to imagine the possibilities that technologies like drones and the Internet of Things could bring to public safety. However, the policy difficulties associated with the deployment of body-worn cameras should serve as a reminder that implementation can be much more complicated than most envision initially. 

There is no doubt the technology can do amazing things, enabling efficiencies and capabilities that would have seemed unimaginable just a short time before. However, technology almost never is a panacea immediately; even if the technology works as designed, it often takes time to make the legal and operational adjustments that allow the new functionality to be used as effectively as envisioned.

Police body cameras are a prime example, with last month’s police shooting of an 18-year-old black male named Paul O’Neal in Chicago underlining some of the policy and operational challenges faced when new technology is deployed.

According to numerous media account, O’Neal was driving a Jaguar—reported as stolen—when pursued by police. After crashing the car into multiple police vehicles, O’Neal ran from the vehicle and later was shot fatally in the back by a police officer. The shooting officer acknowledged that he was unsure whether O’Neal was armed, but he thought gunshots fired in the area had come from O’Neal’s direction.

Chicago has an extensive police body-camera program, and the officer was wearing a functioning body camera, which captured video after the shooting that has been made public. However, Chicago police claim that there was no video at the time that the fatal shots were fired.

Not surprisingly, many citizens-rights groups are claiming that the Chicago police department is refusing to release evidence that may be incriminating against its officers. Others cite this incident as reason why Chicago should review its policies regarding officers ability to turn cameras on and off during their shift.

At the heart of this debate is whether video captured by body-worn cameras—worn by police officers—are open records that should be viewable by the public. Given the fact that these body-worn camera systems are purchased with public funds and are worn by public-safety officers whose salaries are funded by public governments, many argue that any video shot by these cameras should be open records that can be reviewed by the public.

This certainly was the expectation of many civil-rights groups in the wake of the shooting in Ferguson, Mo., that turned that area upside down just two summers ago.

At the time, the conventional wisdom was that having body-worn cameras during such incidents would provide the kind of evidence necessary to implicate public-safety officers that had used poor judgment in using fatal force against suspects, while exonerating those who otherwise may be wrongly accused.

Such arguments help bolster a federal government initiative that allowed public-safety entities to purchase hundreds of millions of dollars worth of body-worn cameras.

But the body-worn camera situation has not proven to be as easy to implement as many first envisioned. As is often the case, there were some technical questions—for instance, should the camera be put on an officer’s head, so the video shows what the officer sees, or should be on the officers chest—but those paled in comparison to the policy issues that were identified almost immediately.

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Insights from Donny Jackson concerning the most important news, trends and issues.

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Donny Jackson

Donny Jackson is editor of Urgent Communications magazine. Before joining UC in 2002, he covered telecommunications for four years as a freelance writer and as news editor for Telephony magazine....
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