By Joe Fiumara, Operations Captain, Lake Havasu City, Arizona, Police Department
t’s coming and maybe faster than you think. There is nothing you can do to stop it. Depending on your point of view, on-officer or body-worn video (BWV) that integrates into daily operations and the courts may be a great or a not-so-great next big step for law enforcement.
Video recordings of law enforcement actions have been a peripheral but key influence for nearly a half century in one form or another. Video images of police tactics during civil rights protests in the 1960s certainly had profound social and legal impacts. George Holliday’s 1991 video capturing the Rodney King beating started a chain of events that reverberate even today. Cops, which first aired in 1989, is one of the longest running television shows in America, featuring officers in more than 140 different cities in the United States and in Hong Kong, London, and the former Soviet Union. The newest phenomenon in this regard is the proliferation of video-capable cellphones and the jumpy, mostly low-resolution images being captured by those who possess them. These video images are often uploaded to the web within minutes of capturing the events they depict. Most officers on the street today have been at incidents where more than one cellphone is recording their every movement and word. These are all examples of video cameras pointed toward police activity by the press, by ordinary citizens, and by reality television producers.
But what about when the police point the video cameras on their own activities, from their own perspectives? Aside from crime-scene documentation and video intended to record undercover operations, drug buys, and various types of protests, police self-recording has been limited primarily to in-car applications. In-car video systems spread through various U.S. state police and highway patrols in the early 2000s, supported in part by the Department of Justice’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services In-Car Camera Incentive Program. A 2005 IACP study on in-car video and the impact of video evidence on modern policing identifies some positive results of this technology. Researchers documented that in-car cameras provide a substantial value to agencies using them, including
- enhancing officer safety,
- improving agency accountability,
- reducing agency liability,
- simplifying incident review,
- enhancing new recruit and in-service training through post-incident use of videos,
- improving community and media perceptions,
- strengthening police leadership,
- advancing prosecution and case resolution,
- enhancing officer performance and professionalism,
- increasing homeland security, and
- upgrading technology policies and procedures1
In-car video systems have obviously had a measurable positive impact for law enforcement but in some respects offer limited value to county and municipal officers whose work often takes place away from the patrol car. The seemingly obvious solution to this problem is to put the video on the officer, but it was not until relatively recently that technology advanced with viable devices. A number of wearable video camera systems have hit the market in varying configurations in the past few years. Most are small, self-contained units that clip to the front of an officer’s uniform shirt (VieVu), act as radio speaker-mic substitutes (VidMic), or slip in the shirt pocket disguised as a pen (Spyer). Headworn video systems “look” where the officer looks. Two systems—the Taser International Axon Flex and the Tactical Electronics BWV4—consist of multimount cameras and separate controllers and recorders.
A unique aspect of the Taser system is the company’s development of an upload process to redundant, encrypted, off-site data centers via a high-speed Internet connection in a cloud-based service called Evidence.Com. Once video evidence is uploaded to Evidence.Com, it can be accessed—but not altered—by officers, supervisors, administrators, and prosecutors via a secure Internet log-in.
Now that we have briefly reviewed BWV technology, it is important to consider some of the accompanying challenges. BWV creates an opportunity to document all of an officer’s investigative or enforcement activities, not just what occurs in front of the patrol car. It also provides an opportunity to affect the way criminal cases proceed through the justice system and the promise of more efficient policing through a reduction in time spent writing reports. With those capabilities come new issues related to privacy, officer acceptance, public records law, and legal admissibility, just to name a few.
Some agencies already have seen an increase in officers’ use of self-purchased video devices. This practice brings concerns similar to officers’ use of self-purchased audio recording devices. Preservation, chain of custody, retention, and format problems can and will arise without definitive policies and safeguards in place. Similar concerns were identified in both the IACP in-car camera study and a BWV study conducted in the United Kingdom, the latter of which cited among its recommended standard operating procedures, “All recordings have the potential to be used in evidence, even if it appears to the user at the time of the incident that this is unlikely (e.g., a stop and search with a negative result). Therefore it is important that all recordings are treated as evidential in the first instance—until it is confirmed otherwise.”2 The California Highway Patrol paid a $2.37 million settlement to the family of an accident fatality victim after digital images from a fatal accident scene made their way to the Internet.3
A group of criminal justice practitioners met in Lake Havasu City, Arizona, to discuss this technology, its opportunities, and its challenges. Police executives, prosecutors, and public and private defense attorneys worked together to examine what obstacles are anticipated and what might be needed to overcome them. The following represents a snapshot of some of the challenges identified:
Redaction and Exclusion
- Confidential informant development
- On-scene officer sidebar discussions
- On-scene tactical planning and decision making
- Victim and in-home privacy concerns
- Additional time required reviewing cases and preparing for court
- Disclosure rules
- Additional opportunities for impeachment
- Nonactivation or missing segments
Officer Acceptance and Compliance
- Accidental or intentional nonactivation
- Accidental or intentional deactivation
- Related, but nonsequential or nonconsecutive event identification and merging
- Equipment failure
Optional offsite evidentiary data storage exists. According to the IACP in-car camera study, “After conducting site assessments throughout multiple jurisdictions, one common problem emerged. The issue of storage and management of audio/video recordings has become one of the largest obstacles agencies have had to overcome. The purchase, acquisition, duplication, and storage of recorded media requires personnel time commitment, space, and resources that the majority of agencies are not prepared to deal with. Maintaining and guarding the integrity of the recorded media was an overarching theme in our assessment.”4
A hurdle not yet broached in detail, perhaps for obvious reasons given the current economic climate.
For those, such as the author, who believe that the vast majority of law enforcement officers are dedicated and capable professionals who serve their communities in honorable fashion, BWV holds the promise of better documenting and validating officers’ good work. Concerns expressed about unreasonably increasing tort liability or harm to public relations simply do not hold water. Conversely, the author expects that BWV will result in protection of truth and a reduction in actual or claimed acts of unreasonable force and racial profiling. Officers likely will be able to function more efficiently and effectively and criminal cases likely will proceed through the court system with increased efficiency and—of upmost importance—with more accurate information and the fairest outcomes.
It is imperative that law enforcement takes proactive steps to guide policy development, standards, legal processes, and best practices in a manner that will foresee and overcome the anticipated challenges. Failure to do so could easily result in bad case law, unnecessary legal constraints, or a combination of the two that could hamper the many exciting opportunities presented by BWV. ♦
1The International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) and Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS), The Impact of Video Evidence on Modern Policing (Alexandria, Va.: IACP, 2004), 2, 36, http://www.cops.usdoj.gov/files/ric/Publications/video_evidence.pdf (accessed July 23, 2012).
2Police and Crime Standards Directorate, Guidance for the Police Use of Body-Worn Video Devices (London, England: Home Office, July 2007), 18–19, http://www.revealmedia.com/LinkClick.aspx?fileticket=dH4IOGWh9ZI%3D&tabid=156 (accessed July 25, 2012).
3Rick Rojas, “CHP Settles over Leaked Photos of Woman Killed in Crash,” Los Angeles Times, January 31, 2012, http://articles.latimes.com/2012/jan/31/local/la-me-chp-photos-20120131 (accessed July 23, 2012).
4IACP and COPS, The Impact of Video Evidence on Modern Policing.
Mark your calendars now and plan to attend the 37th Annual LEIM Training Conference and Technology Exposition, May 21–23, 2013, in Scottsdale, Arizona. Visit http://www.theiacp.org/LEIM in the coming months for more information.
Please cite as:
Joe Fiumara, "The Future Is Near: Getting Ahead of the Challenges of Body-Worn Video," Technology Talk, The Police Chief 79 (September 2012): 54.