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  • Writer's pictureDaniel Zehnder

Body-Worn Camera Policy Compliance

May 8, 2016

While some of the information in this article is outdated or misinterpreted, it does highlight a very critical aspect of any body-worn camera program and that is policy compliance. It’s not enough to just be specific about activations and deactivations in policy. The policy must be enforced. It is impractical, however, to have an “always on” policy. This is an uninformed position. There are too many circumstances that can arise where it may be necessary to deactivate the camera. It would be extremely difficult to write a policy that could cover every specific instance authorizing deactivation. Likewise, too much officer discretion is also unacceptable. This feeds into a negative public perception that officers will simply not activate, or deactivate, the camera at will. The absence of video when it should exist will be perceived by the public as an attempt to hide misconduct or criminal behavior and in the courts as a failure to collect and/or preserve evidence. An effective and practical policy starts with the premise that the camera is always activated and outlines when that is to occur. It then provides some general specific circumstances when the camera can be deactivated, either temporarily, or for the duration of the incident. The key to these deactivations, however, is the provision that the officer must articulate on camera why he or she is deactivating. This must be backed up in any accompanying written reports. This is a practical and acceptable way to balance accountability with privacy and investigative concerns.

So how does any agency monitor compliance? Policy violations have to be identified before they can be enforced. For smaller agencies this may be as simple as random supervisory review or department level activation audits. For larger agencies, however, compliance audits become more challenging. Any agency of over 200 officers may produce several thousand hours of video a week. The largest agencies will produce terabytes of video a month. It would take a small army to compare dispatch logs and body-camera system logs on a daily basis for instances of non-compliance. Technology can, and will, be a solution to this issue but there’s still a lot of work to be done for robust automated compliance reporting. The ability for a department to rapidly identify policy failures so that it can act in a timely manner to correct the problem is essential. So what should be done when an officer fails to follow policy in this area? Do we fire an officer for a one time occurrence? Probably, if the reason the camera was not activated, or deactivated, was to hide gross misconduct or criminal activity such as outlined in the Columbus Dispatch piece. But what is to be done when the officer simply failed to activate the camera in the heat of a dynamic situation? Do we fire an officer for failing to activate the camera when she jumps out of a patrol car to give chase to a suspect? Absolutely not. The last thing she is probably thinking about is camera activation. The new officer fresh out of the academy and training who just forgets? The veteran officer who is being challenged with the new technology? Again, absolutely not. A disciplinary approach must be balanced and reasonable. Departments certainly cannot disregard these violations. To do so would be irresponsible and unacceptable. Officer compliance failures must be brought to the officer’s attention immediately. Corrective documentation or retraining are acceptable tools to correct initial compliance failures. Then, if an officer continues to fail to follow policy, stronger incremental discipline is in order.

We, both law enforcement and the public, must understand that this technology is fundamentally changing policing in ways we are only beginning to understand. Cameras, and every aspect of our lives that seem to be recorded by them, can reveal the best and worst of people, including officers, in their most trying times. Police officers are not actors in a movie nor did they sign up to be in your favorite reality TV show. Those that advocate the “always on” approach probably would protest greatly if they were subjected to recording everything they do in their workplace. Police departments around the country will struggle with striking the proper disciplinary balance. Some in the public won’t be patient or will demand harsh punishment of officers. Both sides must realize that will cannot discipline officers into compliance. In time the vast majority of police officers will learn that these cameras are a valuable tool and can protect them and the public they serve. Professionals and reasonable people understand this.

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