I wanted to follow up on my blog from last week – “Candid Camera: Illinois’ New Law Enforcement Officer-Worn Camera Act” – because I think this issue merits a broader discussion.

Body-worn cameras have made police operations more transparent to the public and have helped resolve questions that surround encounters between officers and the general public. Additionally, by providing police accountability, the cameras can help prevent problems in the first place by increasing police professionalism. Based on anecdotal reports, it appears that agencies that require their officers to use body-worn cameras experience fewer complaints.

Potential Decline in Use of Force Incidents

A study of the Rialto, California Police Department led by Police Chief William Farrar with assistance from researchers at Cambridge University found that shifts with cameras reduced the use of force incidents “by 2.5 times compared to the 12 months prior.” Questions still remain if the reduction resulted from officer behavior, citizen behavior or any number of variables that could affect the findings. Moreover, this study only represents a small sample and it may be too early to understand the cost or benefit of body-worn cameras.

Eavesdropping Laws

Illinois has a tough new eavesdropping law, which allows police to record video but generally not audio. Members of the public can still record both audio and video of police officers, but an officer cannot audio-record citizens without a court order. The strict audio restrictions can present a challenge for Illinois police officers related to when and where audio recording component can be active. Video recording has its own set of issues such as:

  1. The location of the camera (i.e., on the chest, lapel or glasses)
  2. If the position of the officer (i.e., weaver or isosceles stance) obstructs the video
  3. The angle of the video and what it actually captures

Without audio, it will be almost impossible to determine or decipher the contact’s words, intent and tone which can be crucial to understanding the full set of circumstances surrounding a situation. 

Privacy Concerns

Members of the public and police officers have both raised privacy concerns. The cameras will capture real-time traumatic experiences, but the impact on both citizen and officer privacy is not completely understood. Redaction requirements for police departments and the software to address these may prove costly. According to the District of Columbia’s Police Chief Cathy Lanier, the “video redaction or de-identification industry is in its infancy, with no industry standards upon which to judge the quality of work provided and the level of de-identification reached.” Other challenges include a risk of hacking and inadvertent data disclosure.

It is important to note that implementation will have a substantial effect, both positive and negative, on any police department.

Six Recommendations for Agencies Considering Implementing a Body-Worn Camera Program

  1. Carefully consider the costs and benefits of adoption. Conduct an evaluation to analyze the financial impact of a body-worn camera program.
  2. Update written policies and procedures to comply with state or local legislation.
  3. Ensure policies include specific measures to prevent data tampering, deleting and copying.
  4. Review and implement training programs to address body-camera use.
  5. Create a training manual and make it accessible in both digital and hard copy.
  6. Collect statistical data concerning camera usage and conduct periodic reviews of policies and protocols.

Additional Resources