Wearable Cameras: This Arrest Is Being Recorded

Small cameras worn on an officer’s vest, lapel or eyewear can capture interactions that have ramifications on several levels.

by / September 19, 2014

In an era when everyone has a phone that can record video or audio, police have struggled to catch up with this new reality. Phone camera video recordings of officers behaving badly quickly go viral. But now the technology that puts miniaturized video cameras into smartphones also powers body-wearable cameras. And police are finding that to be a good thing.

Small cameras worn on an officer’s vest, lapel or eyewear can capture interactions that have ramifications on several levels. First, the cameras can impact the judicial process. A survey by the National District Attorneys Association and the American Prosecutors Research Institute found that 91 percent of prosecutors have used video evidence captured by a police camera, whether in the car or worn on the body. Video evidence increases the ability to obtain convictions and the ability to obtain guilty pleas prior to trial.

Cops like wearable cameras because they appear to reduce the likelihood of an assault, deterring violence and negative behavior. “People stop acting badly when you tell them they are being recorded,” said Las Vegas Sheriff Douglas Gillespie during a 2013 Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) conference. The cameras also can affect professionalism, helping to improve the accountability of police officers as well as reduce complaints of police misconduct, according to a report by the National Institute of Justice.

“There’s a considerable level of interest in the technology,” said David Roberts, senior program manager for the International Association of Chiefs of Police. “It’s helped police departments identify and reduce the number of frivolous lawsuits because it provides levels of documentation.”

Just as phone video cameras have become smaller, better, easier and cheaper, body-worn cameras have gone through similar improvements in resolution, frame rate, battery runtime and low-light recording. Even storage — always an issue when it comes to video — has options that now include the cloud.

For cops, one of the biggest issues with wearable cameras is figuring out how to simplify linking a recorded event with an incident call. Should the officer be responsible for uploading the video or should it be handled by a third party to ensure that the video is not tampered with? Then there’s cost. The cameras aren’t that expensive, depending on the quality required, but when a department purchases an entire system, with management and storage, costs can escalate. 

But the most pressing issue with wearable cameras comes down to policies regarding image storage and retention. Agencies need to consider how long video clips should be stored and who has access to them. States have different laws on how long recordings must be kept. Speaking at a PERF conference in 2013, Scott Greenwood, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, said 5 to 7 percent of video recorded by officers in the field has evidentiary or exculpatory value, which he believes should be flagged for longer storage. “Certainly any use of force video ought to be flagged so it’s not deleted,” he said. “We would call for routine data to be deleted relatively quickly.”

Questions about usage, retention, management and security must be answered with clear policies well before a police department commits funds to using the technology, said Roberts. “The lack of policy in place before implementing the technology is a common problem,” he said. The other often-overlooked issue is measuring the impact of the technology. “You’ve got to build some metrics around it,” he added.

One of the most extensive studies on wearable cameras was conducted in 2012 by the Police Foundation with the Rialto, Calif., Police Department. When half the city’s 54 uniformed officers wore cameras, the department saw an 88 percent decline in the number of complaints filed against officers, compared with the 12 months before the study. Rialto’s police officers also used force nearly 60 percent less often — in 25 instances, compared with 60. When force was used, it was twice as likely to have been applied by the officers who weren’t wearing cameras, the study found.

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Tod Newcombe Senior Editor

With more than 20 years of experience covering state and local government, Tod previously was the editor of Public CIO, e.Republic’s award-winning publication for information technology executives in the public sector. He is now a senior editor for Government Technology and a columnist at Governing magazine.

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