A Look Into Police Body-Worn Cameras

KENT, Ohio — How would you feel if the officer that pulled you over approached you wearing a camera attached to his or her chest? Some of you would feel safer; the officer is being held accountable for his or her actions when in contact with you. Others may feel the opposite, feeling their right to privacy is being invaded. 

These are only a few of the very valid points on both sides of the argument around police police body-worn (BWCs). It is important for patrons and officers alike to understand both sides of the argument regarding police BWCs when forming an opinion about them, especially since the Kent police department is planning on implementing BWCs cameras to their officers mid-year 2021.

An Introduction: The Benefits and Concerns of Police BWCs

Police BWCs have proven to be a very useful law enforcement tool as they provide transparent and accurate footage of the situation the officer is in. 

Headshot of Chuck Choate, Senior Staff Representative for FOP, Kent chapter.
Headshot of Chuck Choate, Senior Staff Representative for FOP, Kent chapter. (Courtesy of Chuck Choate).

“What the body-worn cameras do is provide a third-party, who was not involved in the situation; a glimpse from one part of what the officers saw, heard, said and did,” Chuck Choate, Senior Staff Representative for the Kent chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), said. “That gives a visual representation to the officers accounts of his or her actions once they were sent to a situation. It’s just another tool, like a witness statement, victim statement or other reporting officer statement.”

The FOP is the organization that was hired by the Kent police officers unit to represent them in their contract negotiations. Choate has held the representative position for Kent for two contracts, each of which is three years, said Choate. 

“The net result for the union is body-worn and vehicle cameras have been a very pleasant tool that has helped us to represent police officers when they are falsely accused,” Choate said. “We’re happy about them, they aren’t a bad thing at all.”

Aside from improving transparency and accountability, and providing an additional resource for officials to view when examining a situation, according to the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) Journal Body-Worn Cameras: What the Evidence Tells Us, BWCs are also potentially beneficial because they could lead to increased civility, quicker resolutions and provide more training opportunities.

The NIJ Journal article notes that in the earliest studies from the United Kingdom, BWCs “resulted in positive interactions between officers and citizens, and made people feel safer.” Citizen complaints and crime reduced, while arrests, prosecutions and guilty pleas increased, according to the article.

The U.S. found similar results in their own testings in 2014, noting that “officers with body-worn cameras were more productive in terms of making arrests, had fewer complaints lodged against them relative to officers without body-worn cameras, and had higher numbers of citizen complaints resolved in their favor.”

“We were told, years ago, that in-car cameras and eventually body-worn cameras were going to prove that there was a lot of malfeasance by officers on a day to day and that the body-worn and in-car cameras were going to bear that out,” Choate said. “The statistics have demonstrated that the advent of body-worn cameras and their requisite recordings in an investigation of an officer’s actions have more than the majority supported and exonerated actions taken by officers.”

Headshot of Chief of Police Nicholas Shearer.
Headshot of Chief of Police Nicholas Shearer. (Courtesy of Nicholas Shearer).

Despite the various benefits BWCs can bring, there are a few consequences and concerns associated with the implementation of BWCs, including the cost of both the camera and storage equipment, risks of privacy breaches and the distorted effects of unrestricted footage review.

“The first piece of that is the camera themselves,” Chief of Police Nicholas Shearer said. “Above and beyond that, there’s a lot of back-end issues that you run into. There’s a cloud-based storage platform that most companies offer, or there’s in-house storage. So, depending on what we ultimately determined we’re going to do, we’d have to purchase the server space, or the cloud space, to be able to host all the data that it’s going to create.”

Shearer also notes the “hidden cost” associated with the cameras and their storage, that because there are a lot of videos and video requests that come in, and an extreme amount of time associated with extra camera monitoring, one of the things that the police department is going to have to determine is if they are going to have to add staff to manage the entire video storage system, Shearer said.

In a 2017 report from Upturn about how BWC footage can distort evidence, the “unrestricted footage review can taint what officers remember, skew what officers write, undermine the evidentiary value of police reports, unduly inflate officer credibility and erode procedural justice and trust.”

It’s important to note that BWCs only show a limited account of what the officer experienced and should not be used as a substitute for an officer’s reasonable beliefs and perceptions, according to the report.

However, in the end, BWCs are still a relatively new tool and more research is needed in order to determine how beneficial or consequential these devices really are. There is an increasing amount of studies that are continuing to be done in this field to help fill the knowledge gap about BWCs in order for everyone to understand the true effects these devices can bring, both good and bad.

The History of Police BWCs

According to an article from the American Police Officers Alliance website about the history of police BWCs, the idea of implementing BWCs was first introduced to the U.S. in 2005 when the U.K. began experimenting with them.

“In 2005, the Devon and Cornwall Police Departments were widely considered the first departments to implement and test the technology,” according to the article. Their program became national when the technology was used in support of the domestic violence enforcement campaign (DVEC), where the recordings were used as acceptable evidence when the victims of domestic violence were too hesitant to press charges. Within five years, over 40 U.K. police areas had implemented BWCs, according to the article. 

In 2012, the U.S. began doing similar BWC tests in Rialto, CA and in Mesa and Phoenix, AZ, the results of which were similar to those from the U.K. from 2005. However, due to the cost of the equipment, most police departments were unable to implement them.

In 2014, after the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MS, President Barack Obama “propose[d] a three-year $263 million investment package that will increase use of body-worn cameras, expand training for law enforcement agencies (LEAs), add more resources for police department reform, and multiply the number of cities where DOJ facilitates community and local LEA engagement,” according to the White House Fact Sheet release.

Graph showing the percent of law enforcement agencies that have recording devices.
The graph shows the percent of law enforcement agencies that have recording devices.
*Includes devices for interview rooms, building surveillance, and other agency-specified responses.
Source: Bureau of Justice Statistics, Body-Worn Cameras in Law Enforcement Agencies, 2016.

In Sept. of 2015, Attorney General Loretta Lynch “announced that the Justice Department has awarded grants totaling more than $23.3 million to 73 local and tribal agencies in 32 states to expand the use of body-worn cameras and explore their impact” for the body-worn camera pilot program that was announced that May.

In 2016, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) Body-Worn Cameras in Law Enforcement Agencies, 2016 report, “47 percent of general-purpose law enforcement agencies in the United States had acquired body-worn cameras (BWCs).” 

According to that same BJS report and the NIJ, the main reasons (about 80 percent each) for the implementation of BWCs were to “improve officer safety, increase evidence quality, reduce civilian complaints, and reduce agency liability.” Other reasons include “improving accountability (73 percent), making cases more prosecutable (70 percent), improving officer professionalism (60 percent), improving community perceptions (57 percent), and reducing use of force (34 percent).”

The Implementation of BWCs in Kent

As of right now, the Kent city police department does not have BWCs implemented yet. However, they are planning on implementing these cameras mid-year 2021, according to Shearer. 

Click on each pin point to read more about what each police department near Kent is doing in regard to BWCs.
Key:
Red – Police department does have BWCs
Orange – Police department is implementing BWC.
Purple – Police department does not have BWCs

“First and foremost, it’s becoming more and more of an industry-standard or expectation of the public that we have body cameras,” Shearer said. “A big part of my goals in this position for our department going forward is transparency. Body cameras are a huge piece of that transparency puzzle.”

When asked about where the department is in the process of implementing these BWCs, Shearer said they were still looking into specific camera companies and brands and researching which products are the best specifically for them. 

“Quite honestly, we find that camera monitoring is a very great tool for us in investigating any officer complaints,” Shearer said. “There’s a very high percentage of officers being exonerated of accusations based on camera monitoring. Either way, whether it exonerates officers or validates complaints, it’s a piece to allow us to have a little bit of oversight and work with the community to make sure that everybody can see what we’re doing and what we should be as an organization.”

Whether you agree with the implementation of BWCs within the Kent police department and across the state or not, there is one thing we can all agree on: BWCs alone are not the end-all-be-all solution to improving police performance, accountability and relationships with the community. While BWCs do help in improving these factors, there will always be work that needs to be done to ensure police are doing their jobs correctly.