Scenes from a body-worn camera

A recent Smartphone commercial declares virtually anyone can be a “photojournalist” today. That’s because nowadays more people carry camera phones than do not. It’s only natural, then, to anticipate law enforcement officers going about their business will at some point find themselves a subject in someone’s “short film.” It doesn’t always go well. Unsolicited footage witnessing “conduct unbecoming” has time and again resulted in suspensions and dismissals. After all, a video can be shot unawares to the subject, uploaded to YouTube, and viewed by thousands of eyes in minutes.

This type of constant surveillance can seem a daunting new reality of public safety. But wait—there’s a flip side. For all the disparaging events a citizen camera might capture, there are likely as many or more videos that vindicate an officer’s routine activity...examples of behavior that, when reviewed, give evidence to proper protocol, noble efforts and reality.

More police and sheriff’s deputies have cameras, too. A few weeks ago I saw the movie “End of Watch.” The film, shot documentary style, follows LAPD partners and friends (played by Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña), as they patrol the rough streets of South Central Los Angeles with its child abusers and drug cartels. Throughout the movie Gyllenhaal’s character records his daily activities for a “project”, using a small camera that goes with him everywhere from the patrol car, to briefing, to his own wedding. In addition, some scenes are captured as if by dashcam.

From a Hollywood standpoint big-screen cameras seem to get smaller and smaller (do not watch this movie if you are prone to nausea!). The shaky scenes served a purpose, though: writer and director David Ayer wanted to show law enforcement from a law enforcement point of view—not sensationalized one way or the other. I thought in general it was an interesting take compared with other movies of its genre. The dynamic between the two officers was particularly good.

Whether you love this movie or hate it (just a warning, there was no shortage of profanity...also, how many times have you dropped duty belt and engaged a suspect in a fistfight—while allowing your duty partner to “roll film”?), it does supply good conversation fodder; certainly about accuracy and plot, but I think this movie also evidences a new awareness in regards to documentation and technology. It makes one consider things like good versus bad press, the effects simple vantage point might have on a viewer’s perception of an event; or a video’s value in court.

In this issue’s cover story Carole Moore offers some guidelines for creating (or refining) department-wide policy for the use and protocol of body-worn surveillance tech. This may be a starting point or reminder, but either way video by now is a fact of life, and the every day “photojournalist” won’t think twice before recording an officer at work.

What’s your point of view?