View from the Top

Body-worn cameras for law enforcement: A really big deal and really, really Big Data

Table of Contents:

Author Edmond Vea outlines some of the capabilities and technical challenges associated with use of body-worn cameras by law-enforcement officers, which has been the focus of considerable funding and political attention during the past year. Vea also introduces a survey to gather input from readers about body-worn cameras, the results of which he will unveil during IWCE 2015 in March.

By Edmond Vea

Considering the history of the adoption of in-car cameras for law-enforcement purposes and what history bodes for the eventual use and funding of body-worn cameras, you could say it is déjà vu all over again.

According to a 2002 study conducted by International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) at the request of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS), in-car cameras initially were introduced into patrol vehicles more than three decades ago to assist with documenting infractions leading up to drunk-driving stops and the subsequent sobriety tests. In the 1990s, in-car cameras were used to assist in narcotics convictions. It seems juries had a hard time believing that drug traffickers would willing submit to having their vehicles searched voluntarily—until they saw the tape. But the widespread use of such cameras took off in response to court rulings alleging racial profiling in the late 1990s and the resulting $21 million in federal funding from the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) grant program that helped pay for them.

According to the study, the benefits of in-car video outweighed the drawbacks. Some of the main benefits were enhancing officer safety, improving accountability while reducing liability and simplifying incident review. Other benefits included improving training, community relations, and strengthening leadership. A much more recent study, Police Officer Body-Worn Cameras; Assessing the Evidence (2014)—also funded by the DOJ—extends similar findings directly to body-worn cameras, concluding that they offer “increased officer safety and accountability and reduced agency liability.”

From a performance perspective, it is hoped that body cameras can overcome some of the technical challenges associated with in-car systems such, as their lack of peripheral vision, fixed position, distance, and limited scope. Of course, body cameras will not be a panacea. But in a day and age when almost every individual in society has easy and instant access to a portable video and voice recorder, it only makes sense that law enforcement makes use of similar technologies to assure independent access to video and audio transcripts of an event or incident, even if the quality, perspective, and audio fidelity may not always be optimal.

As is the case with the adoption of all new technologies, there are also setbacks and disappointments. Often, these can be attributed to a top-down approach to planning, acquisition, education, and execution. In the case of something as potentially invasive as a body camera, a lack of consensus regarding the purpose and use of the cameras by the line officers can present serious challenges.

Sgt. Aaron Kelliher of the Chino (California) Police Department offers methodology and suggestions to improve line-officer acceptance of body cameras by making use of FIT (Focus-Involvement-Testing).  FIT seeks to gain acceptance by engaging line officers as early as possible in testing phase.

Working with volunteers and focus groups within the force builds understanding, consensus and/or at least compromises before moving ahead with a full-fledged acquisition and deployment. Cities like Philadelphia and Houston, perhaps anticipating resistance to the wholesale adoption of body cameras, both started pilot projects in December. In Philadelphia, 31 officers volunteered for the project to be conducted in the 22nd District; in Houston, 100 officers were selected from five divisions: Traffic Enforcement, Special Operations, Central Patrol Division, North Division and the Crime Reduction Unit.

Discuss this Blog Entry 2

Bill Bouwhuis (not verified)
on Feb 4, 2015

It is the public who should be wearing the body cams. I guess after 50 years it was my turn to have police mistreat me on three separate occasions. We have the some of the highest paid police forces in North America here in Ontario. That does not seem to halt the steady stream of police misconduct reports. It is indeed a sad commentary that at my age (68), I have come to see the police as the enemy, and I am not alone. Police budgets are skyrocketing with a corresponding erosion of personal freedoms. Body cameras just add to the noise.

Anonymous (not verified)
on Feb 9, 2015

I agree fully, and my step-dad was a law enforcement officer, a DEA agent, problem with the cams- they are in police hands, guess what, they are EDITING them to improve and create a case for court, I know because I am fighting a case right now, they edited my dashcam recording, 28 blacked out spots(missing spots) removing threats and violations, misconduct by the officer, also a couple of only audio missing spots, the fox is guarding the hen house, and this way they only let out what they want, they refuse to release the GPS data for my case, which would prove perjury and falsifying a report, they say there is no GPS data yet the video displays it working perfectly, yes the public needs to protect themselves as there are criminals in law enforcement, this isn't Mayberry RFD anymore. Oh and if anyone out there can recommend an expert for video editing or perhaps a law enforcement officer who truly believes in justice and can help to stop this, please leave a comment.

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