In a profession where split-second decisions can have serious consequences, having a video account of officer interactions can exonerate an officer if his or her actions are brought into question at a later date.
Prior to the 1980s, in-car police cameras were largely nonexistent. The first documented effort to install an in-car police camera was in the late 1960s when the Connecticut State Police installed a camera, tripod and equipment in a police vehicle. At the time, the technology proved impractical.Twenty years later, Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (MADD) brought nationwide attention to DUI and provided funding to law enforcement to equip vehicles with dash cams meant to specifically assist in the prosecution of DUIs.
In the 1990s, during America’s “War on Drugs,” dash cam footage was used to show juries that defendants had consented to the search of their vehicles during traffic stops.The technology was also utilized to address sensitive issues such as racial profiling in traffic stops and assaults on police officers. In 2000, the Department of Justice and the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) initiated the In-Car Camera Initiative Program to provide funding for dash cams to state police and highway patrol agencies throughout the U.S. Prior to this initiative, only about 11 percent of state police and highway patrol vehicles were equipped with dash cams.By 2003, 72 percent of state police and highway patrol vehicles were equipped.
Without a question some officers will negatively perceive the usage of dash cam video as a means for their employer to supervise their patrol. However, research has demonstrated that dash cam video footage exonerates officers of wrongdoing more than 90 percent of the time.
In May 2011, law enforcement officers in Tomah, Wisconsin were exonerated in the fatal shooting of Seth McCloskey after dash cam footage showed McCloskey exited his vehicle and fired a handgun at officers. In that case, an eye witness testified that law enforcement misrepresented the facts to justify the shooting. However, the dash cam video footage corroborated the officers’ version of events. Similarly, in Monona, Wisconsin, dash cam video helped exonerate a law enforcement officer in a December 2010 shooting.
Outside of Cleveland in 2009, a teenager with a toy gun was fatally shot by law enforcement officers.Once again, the video derived from the in-car technology demonstrated that, in that instance, the officers’ use of deadly force was justified.
The benefits of dash cam technology go beyond simply exonerating officers from wrongdoing. They have also been found to enhance officer safety, reduce liability, improve the community/media’s perception of law enforcement, and improve conviction rates. Further, in a survey conducted by the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) and COPS, 51 percent of people reported they would change their behavior if they knew they were being videotaped.
Although there are many benefits to dash cams, they are limited. Only about 10 percent of police activity takes place in front of the car, and the measurable benefits are limited to those scenarios.
Video cameras and police liability
There are three sides to every story: yours, theirs and the truth. For law enforcement, that’s the officer’s side, the citizen’s side, and the truth. However, advances in technology and the success of dash cams may permit “video” to be synonymous with “truth.”
In a profession where it often comes down to two very different versions of the same event, dash cams have proven a useful tool. In some ways, a law enforcement officer who can serve an entire career without facing some sort of civil liability is an anomaly. More and more, patrol men and women are finding themselves the target of disgruntled citizens. This usually results in complaints to the agency and/or a lawsuit.
In such lawsuits, it’s not unusual for the version of events provided by the citizen to stand in stark contrast to the version recollected by the officer. In fact, many times officers have difficulty recalling the specific circumstances of an event because of the volume and frequency of similar encounters.
A camera is an unbiased eye and literally has a photographic memory. By treating the camera as another tool, an officer not only increases his effectiveness, but protects himself from liability, both civilly and professionally.
The next step: Body-worn
In March 2013, The Police Foundation published a year-long study, “Self-awareness to being watched and socially-desirable behavior: A field experiment on the effect of body-worn cameras on police use-of-force,” conducted in Rialto, California, to determine the impact body-worn cameras would have on law enforcement. The entire population of front-line officers participated in the study using control and monitored shifts. The study was conducted between February 12, 2012 and February 12, 2013.
In the three calendar years preceding the study, the Rialto Police Department experienced an average of 65 use-of-force incidents and 38 citizen complaints per year. During the 12-month period of the study, Rialto police officers utilized force only 25 times, and only three citizens’ complaints were filed. Further, of the 25 use-of-force incidents, 17 occurred during control shifts when officers were not utilizing the cameras. While no data was collected, the study hypothesized that the presence of the cameras, and awareness of being videotaped, modified the behavior of those who interacted with police. It is likely this contributed to the significant reduction in use-of-force incidents during the 12-month period.
This data is consistent with the study conducted by the IACP and COPS, in which 51 percent of people surveyed would change their behavior if they knew they were being videotaped.
Major cities across America including, Baltimore, Dallas, Albuquerque, Fort Worth, Oakland and Houston, have begun experimenting with body-worn cameras on their officers as they come to understand the evolution and benefits of such equipment, and recognize that body-worn cameras can benefit the 90 percent of police interactions that do not take place in front of cameras.
While some LEOs may raise the same concerns over body-worn cameras as that of dash cams (i.e., the cameras are there to catch them doing wrong or to watch their every move), the truth is that LEOs are already being videotaped. Everyone has seen videos, often captured on cell phones, depicting what appears to be egregious conduct on the part of patrol officers. Typically, these videos do not capture the entire incident, and oftentimes they only catch the 30-second climax of a prolonged interaction with an individual or group. These videos are posted to the Internet, broadcast on the news, and ultimately form public opinion regarding an incident, a particular agency and law enforcement in general.
With dash and body-warn cameras, officers can simultaneously protect themselves from criminal or civil liability and help improve the public perception of law enforcement.