To protect, to serve … to smile for the camera? While future officers probably don't envision taking such an oath, a new reality of policing life is that cameras are almost everywhere and law enforcement personnel are more likely than ever to be videotaped on the job — not only by the dashboard cams in their patrol vehicles, but also by camera phones that are wielded by an increasingly video-savvy public.
Richard Weinblatt, a former police chief and current manager of the Seminole County Police Academy in Orlando, Florida, advises his trainees to get used to it. "We tell them, 'Remember, in this day and age everybody has a camera phone, and you could end up on YouTube,'" he says. "I kid you not. We specifically address that."
Camera phones were named to Time magazine's list of the "coolest inventions" of 2003, and they've grown in popularity and impact with each successive year. The number of camera phones shipped worldwide is expected to top an astonishing one billion in less than two years. Nearly half of all American households have at least one camera phone already, and it is becoming harder every day to find a phone that doesn't come with a built-in camera or video function. As a result, people from Bourbon Street to Wall Street to Main Street are now in the habit of flipping open their phones and snapping a photo or recording a video of whatever grabs their attention. Anecdotal evidence suggest that people are recording encounters with law enforcement with increasing frequency, leaving some officers to feel as if the public now has police departments under surveillance.
"I don't know if surveillance is the right word," says John Wills, a retired FBI agent and a columnist for Officer.com. "Maybe observation is more like it." In this respect, Wills notes that the advent of camera phones has made little difference in the world of law enforcement. Whether being recorded or not, police officers have always been in the public eye and under public scrutiny. A recent Officer.com poll reflects that sentiment, with 54 percent of respondents saying that the public's use of camera phones has had no effect on department operations.
In another respect, though, Wills echoes many law enforcement professionals when he says that videotaping police officers now happens often enough to make it worth addressing in some fashion. "It should probably be mentioned — maybe in roll call or training, or for new cops in the academy — that the likelihood is great that there's going to be people out there with recording devices and the like," he says.
Correspondingly, additional results of the Officer.com poll reflect the fact that some departments have begun to implement policies regarding camera phones. Ten percent of the officers voting in the poll reported that they had received information regarding camera phones, either during roll call or as part of their training. In addition, poll results indicate that other departments may soon follow suit: More than 30 percent of respondents named camera phones as a concern that their agencies had not yet addressed.
Some officers say they don't mind being videotaped, while others view it as an impediment to effective policing. Obviously, says a patrol supervisor interviewed for this article, attitudes about camera phones and about being videotaped while working will vary with the circumstances that surround each incidence of videotaping. Wills points out that an officer's age and the amount of time he or she has spent on the job are additional factors. Among the officers with whom he's discussed the issue, Wills reports that veteran officers seem the most unaffected by the prospect of being videotaped on the job. "The older guys are used to [being observed] and they're set in their ways, so to speak, and they're going to do what they're going to do, regardless," he says. "But the younger generation, the technophiles, the people who have grown up in the video age, they are more cognizant of the fact that people are out there with cameras and cell phones and videos."