Worth more than a thousand words

Cameras are now as ubiquitous in modern society as cellphones and already come as standard equipment on most models. But members of the technology-obsessed public aren’t the only ones armed with the ability to record what they see; many departments have discovered that outfitting officers with video capabilities translates to fewer lawsuits, better relationships within their communities and lower officer stress levels. Like it or not, recording what we do on the job is the new normal.

Bad press, good press

If there’s a single case that illustrates how videos taken by participants or bystanders can blacken an agency’s eye, it’s this recent one involving a female Canadian officer. The officer in question has been the subject of numerous complaints and allegations of police brutality. Although several of the charges filed against her have been dismissed, the public keeps pointing their camera phones in her direction, and eventually she was taped in connection with two incidents that led to her suspension: pepper spraying a crowd of students and getting into a profanity-laced scuffle with a man who exited his apartment, open beer in hand.

Her large, metropolitan agency—unable to ignore postings of the video showing the officer struggling with the individual, and later letting loose with a string of insults and curse words—finally placed her on suspension. The incident created an enormous amount of bad publicity for the department in the wake of allegations of improper conduct.

But taping working police also has its up side. Witness, for example, the tragic September 2009 Kansas City, Missouri, case in which officers engaged in a fatal shoot-out with a man who had crashed his car into a tree, only to suddenly emerge and open fire on them. The man was shot to death, and the shooting was ruled “justifiable.” The crucial evidence provided by the dashboard-mounted camera made the decision swift and decisive—a fortunate outcome for the officers who were only doing their jobs under the worst possible conditions.

In the first case, police and the officer accused of inappropriate behavior have caught the negative side of public opinion. In the latter case, two officers who could have spent months explaining and defending themselves were exonerated both officially and in the court of public opinion within a relatively short amount of time. For most departments, the benefits of taping outweigh the negatives.

Turning the tables

In October of 2012, Salt Lake City’s Police Chief Chris Burbank asked his citizen review board to support his proposal to equip some of his officers with cameras, to be worn on their uniforms or specially-equipped glasses. The cameras, Burbank told the board, would serve to document the officers’ actions in the field, allowing for more openness and transparency in the process. The board not only agreed, but its members were excited by the idea, as long as the cameras didn’t compromise citizen privacy. It was estimated that the systems under consideration would cost about $1,000 per unit.

Salt Lake isn’t the first, and certainly won’t be the last, department to contemplate adding cameras to its regimen. Although dash cams have become relatively commonplace, particularly with traffic officers and state patrols, body cameras—commonly known as on-body recording systems (OBRS)—are more unusual and often more controversial with both officers and the public. But, as many experts point out, arming an officer with a camera can help bulletproof a department’s defense when it comes to liability, both in the civil and criminal sense. In fact, former Cincinnati Police Chief Tom Streicher says that in addition to cameras, departments should also have specific use policies in place.

Streicher, who has worked with TASER International, developer of the AXON Flex on-officer camera system, and ACLU board member and civil rights attorney, Scott Greenwood, have constructed a model policy to guide departments wading into unknown video waters. That policy, says Streicher, allows agencies to avoid unnecessary litigation.

In-house policy

Briefly, here are the statements and provisions Streicher and Greenwood recommend such a policy contain:

A cross-referencing of other departmental procedures that would overlap where they pertain to OBRS

A reference to specific statutes that pertain to the department’s use of OBRS

An overall purpose statement

An overall policy statement

Clearly outlined declarations of use that include: additional equipment officers are allowed to wear, how the officer will check components to ascertain they are working properly, reviewing videos, trouble-shooting problems, and notifying supervisors when a video recording yields something significant

A provision stating when an officer can deactivate the OBRS

A list of the times and types of incidents when an officer must have the OBRS activated

A caveat restricting officers from using the OBRS for use outside of departmental duties and business

A directive regarding the downloading of video, and control and management of the OBRS

A list of guidelines that govern duplication and use of OBRS, and the video obtained from such equipment in connection with court cases

A policy for handling requests for copies of video obtained from OBRS

A procedure for handling outside agency files

A protocol for the supervision, maintenance and storage of the OBRS

OBRS and use of force

Greenwood, an expert in civil rights, says OBRS grow particularly valuable in cases involving the use of force. “Having a point of view perspective from the officer will become the most critical piece of evidence, and the most critical record of what happened in any given encounter.”

He adds the courts and public have long had access to bystander video and closed circuit video feeds, and while helpful, they’re not the golden ticket that an officer-worn recording system can be.

“As somebody who is in favor of transparency and enhanced accountability, I think that OBRS will be the next technological revolution in law enforcement,” Greenwood says. Streicher agrees and carries it one step further, believing there’s a mandate for agencies to deploy OBRS.

“I don’t think there’s a valid excuse for an agency...to not employ the use of OBRS,” says Streicher. “Technology is not an excuse, money is not an excuse, fear is not an excuse, officer safety is not an excuse—there is simply not an excuse (for not using OBRS).”

The former chief points out the systems can theoretically pay for themselves, and uses 1990s Detroit as an example of a jurisdiction that might have benefitted from OBRS. “The city paid out $124 million in damages as a result of complaints of officer misconduct in a 10-year-period. That’s the cost of doing business when there is no enhanced officer accountability,” he says.

Both Streicher and Greenwood admit the systems are not cheap, but they stress that training can only go so far in limiting liability; officers under continuous scrutiny are less likely to engage in misconduct, thus avoiding the necessity of defending costly lawsuits.

Speaking of liability

Norm Pattis is no stranger to legal controversy. As a well-known and self-admittedly controversial criminal defense attorney, Pattis has represented a number of defendants who’ve claimed they were coerced into talking to police. That’s one reason Pattis believes both law enforcement and the general public could benefit from OBRS: their recording capabilities can help debunk or confirm how a confession is obtained.

And, Pattis says, cameras are already everywhere—why not on an officer’s person? He also takes issue with police objections to the public using cameras and cellphones to videotape officers while they are working.

“I have a hard time understanding why police believe it should be unlawful for another person to record them,” Pattis says. He argues that except for certain cases, like when videotaping obstructs or delays an officer or incites a riot, police should welcome additional evidence that they’re doing their duties in a responsible fashion.

Rather than order bystanders to stop taping, Pattis says, it’s better for the officer to simply order the bystanders to stand back. And if they don’t, “then maybe they should be introduced to handcuffs,” says Pattis, who adds that in most cases people understand that an officer has the right to protect the scene.

As for videotape as a tool in criminal or civil court, Pattis reminds agency heads, “Video is a more powerful tool than a memory.”

Going to court armed with a recording

The courts have held that the most important viewpoint at a scene where officer misconduct or brutality is alleged is the officer’s and no one else’s.

“It’s not a God’s-eye view,” says Pattis.

OBRS that are placed even with the officer’s line of sight, like the glasses that Salt Lake City Police were contemplating at the end of 2012, are invaluable to showing police exactly what the officer perceived, which can sometimes be substantially different from what actually took place. What a bystander sees and what the officer sees can also be two separate things.

Dr. John DeCarlo, former chief of the Branford, Conn., Police Department, and an associate professor of criminal justice at the University of New Haven, agrees with Pattis.

“The line between force and excessive use of force is gray sometimes,” DeCarlo says. He believes that the public often takes the use of force out of context, mainly because they perceive it from a different angle.

“When we look at it, we look at it from a contextually different position,” he says. Basically, DeCarlo says the ordinary citizen cannot walk in the officer’s shoes because he has no frame of reference. The OBRS can level this particular playing field.

“The bottom line is that (video) brings new evidence in civil litigation against police to the courts, and that could be a good thing; I believe it will result in many more exonerations for police,” he says.

To camera up or not to camera up—is that really a question? How a department should handle videotaping, whether by its own personnel or by the public, should be a matter of written, controlled policy. And for those considering adding OBRS to their crime-fighting arsenal, the time is certainly as right as it’s ever going to be.


A 12-year veteran of police work, Carole Moore has served in patrol, forensics, crime prevention and criminal investigations, and has extensive training in many law enforcement disciplines. She welcomes comments at carolemoore_biz@yahoo.com.