Technology like body-worn cameras (BWC) can help law enforcement agencies increase transparency in how they police our communities. Recordings of police incidents on social media platforms such as YouTube and Facebook have contributed to an unprecedented level of change within policing. Immediate, constant access to recordings of events has become a mainstay, leading to a belief that police-community interactions should be just as accessible and transparent.

In the last few years, as the public demands increased transparency and accountability, the number of agencies using or contemplating using BWCs has grown significantly. However, according to a study by the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), only 25 percent of agencies surveyed in 2013 used BWCs. Some agencies, particularly in Indiana and Connecticut, are stopping their BWC programs because of high costs for storage due to state-legislated retention requirements. Other agencies report that they are not considering implementing a BWC program due to high start-up costs.

3 Ways Body-Worn Cameras Can Improve Policing

The goals behind the use of BWCs are laudable. Law enforcement agencies use BWCs for a variety of purposes, including:

  1. Specialized encounters – such as SWAT and public demonstrations
  2. General patrol practices – such as improving evidence collection
  3. Personnel oversight – such as creating transparency for police and public interactions or establishing officer performance and accountability measures

The Video Record: Privacy and Administration Concerns

The use of video technology by government agencies is not as simple as that of a private individual. Video recorded encounters with police raise significant questions about the right to privacy and public safety, including:

  • Should a member of the public become a part of a very visible and public record of an event by mere virtue of calling the police for assistance?
  • Would the promise of a public record affect an individual’s decision to call for help?
  • Will the use of BWCs have disparate impact on those underserved communities that rely on police as the first level of government assistance?
  • Should individuals have to sacrifice privacy based on their needs?
  • As the footage generated by BWCs grows, what are the limitations on its use and storage?
  • Who can access footage from BWCs, when and for what purpose?

In addition, law enforcement agencies must consider the administration of a BWC program. Unlike video recordings made by members of the public, BWC footage captured by law enforcement agencies is not likely to be posted as an ongoing, 24/7 record of a day in policing. Instead, agencies must account for indexing, storing, retrieving, reviewing, redacting, producing and disclosing the video record in line with privacy, legal and evidentiary concerns. Agencies must be prepared to respond to public information requests and to ensure appropriate and timely access to hours of recordings.

Overcoming Hurdles to a Body-Worn Camera Program

None of these issues is insurmountable. In order to ensure transparency and accountability, BWC programs should be incorporated into an overall strategic plan. Four key considerations for law enforcement agencies considering implementing a BWC program include:

  1. The scope of the technology investment. The scope is predicated upon the defined need of the program, including start-up costs and the ongoing cost of maintaining and updating equipment, downloading and indexing footage, and administering the program. Additional considerations include how the agency will address public information requests, legal and evidentiary needs and adherence to appropriate retention periods. A strong plan for implementation will avoid significant challenges – and unexpected costs – down the road.
  2. The establishment of a written policy. Law enforcement agencies must establish policies, in writing, that address who, what, when and where to ensure will drive successful a BWC program. At a minimum, these policies should dictate when personnel are required to wear or turn on their BWCs; prescribe consequences for failure to adhere to policy; identify how initial privacy concerns and public information requests will be addressed; determine for how long footage will be retained; and govern overall control of, access to and accountability for footage.
  3. The plan for accountability. Agencies must determine how footage will be used in investigations of police misconduct. For example, agencies must establish who can access footage and at what point in an investigation and decide whether investigations or complaints regarding police misconduct require a different retention policy. Finally, agencies must plan for ongoing supervisory review of BWC footage and determine how footage can be used for internal review and training purposes.
  4. The community’s acceptance. Agencies cannot assume that community members are in agreement as to what constitutes an appropriate BWC policy or its impact on the community. Chiefs need to engage with key community stakeholders to identify their concerns when developing their policies and practices surrounding BWCs.

As with any emerging technology in support of law enforcement, a successful BWC program will be continually refined and improved to ensure consistency, good practices and, ideally, efficiency. For now, law enforcement agencies should consider these four key areas in planning to address known challenges in developing and implementing BWC programs.