An officer gets into a confrontation with a suspect. The incident turns violent. A crowd gathers, and several onlookers pull out their cellphones and start recording. Clips of the ugly exchange go viral. The local media picks up the story, then national news. Scores of people take to the streets shouting about police brutality, demanding accountability and justice. Regardless of the legality and appropriateness of the initial incident, the context has been lost and the divide between police and their communities widens.

It’s a story that’s played out time and time again in recent years. Ferguson. Baltimore. Long Island. Deadly police encounters under questionable circumstances. Uncertainty abounds and speculation swirls. Guilt and innocence become muddled, and mistrust breeds protest and violence. But new technologies are looking to assuage these issues.

Across the country, police departments of all sizes are utilizing body-worn cameras to protect their officers and the citizens they serve. While there are still policy and technical issues to work out with these programs, it seems clear the objective context body-worn cameras provide is improving behavior on both sides of the badge.

What are the benefits of equipping body-worn cameras?

Rialto, Calif., was one of the first police departments in the country to take a scientific, data-driven approach to explore the efficacy of body-worn cameras. In 2013, then-Police Chief Tony Farrar partnered with researchers from the University of Cambridge to explore if body-worn cameras would indeed reduce the prevalence of use-of-force and citizen’s complaints against the police.

The answer to both questions was a resounding “yes.” The often-cited study, published in the Journal of Quantitative Criminology, revealed that over a 12-month period, use-of-force by officers wearing cameras fell by 59 percent while complaints against officers dropped by 87 percent compared to the previous year.

The study marked a pivot point in American policing, and even caught the attention of then-President Barack Obama, who, according to Police Foundation materials, urged police departments across the country to consider using the technology, and asked Congress to provide funding for 50,000 body-worn cameras nationwide.

Current Rialto Police Chief Randy DeAnda says the impetus for implementing body-worn cameras in the city was a drawing a sixth grader handed to Chief Farrar.  “It was a police officer that was tasing a citizen,” DeAnda says. The child’s misunderstanding of the role of a police officer was troubling, and Farrar knew he needed to do something to change this perception, DeAnda explains.

The body-worn camera program provided a much-needed transparency in police actions, DeAnda says. However, more importantly, it bolstered the legitimacy of police work. “Body-worn cameras have legitimized what police officers do day in and day out,” DeAnda says. “It adds credibility to the officer, it adds credibility to their police report and it adds credibility to their testimony when they’re in front of a jury.”

The tangible benefits have been numerous, as well. “We use [the footage] for evidence, for more accurate report writing. This means less time spent in court, fewer cases going to trial and most importantly, reducing the amount of money the city pays out in litigation costs,” DeAnda says. “If you look at the amount of money that’s been paid out in litigation costs, it’s enormous.”

Sgt. Peter Ferranti of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department agrees that more often than not, body-worn cameras serve to protect the officers wearing them from unfounded claims. In the three years the department has been using them, hundreds of cases against officers have been dismissed, “simply because of the existence of body camera video,” he says. 

“If I stop you, have a conversation with you and you sign your ticket and you’re on your way, but then you come in the next day and you report that I called you a bad name and slapped you on the head, now we can have internal affairs play the video from start to finish and see clearly that never happened,” Ferranti says. “We’ve had over 450 cases where the entire complaint against the officer is totally exonerated. That’s a huge selling point.” 

Greenville, S.C., Police Chief Ken Miller says this type of protection is why his department will be rolling out their body-worn camera program in the near future. Body-worn camera footage, he says, give interactions context, and this context can serve as a counterpoint to not only official complaints filed against an officer, but as protection in the court of public opinion. “Most people… tend to have smartphones in their possession,” Miller says. “So you have people who are videotaping police encounters, and then posting to social media certain portions of those encounters.” These portions are rarely favorable for the police, he says, and often lack what precipitated the encounter.  “When you have the resulting outrage around these events, it’s helpful to have your own unedited video footage that helps explain the larger context of the encounter,” he adds. 

Although it’s rare, Miller says the footage can also help pinpoint officer misbehavior, which can be dealt with swiftly and according to the nature of the infraction. “Sometimes we see examples of officer misbehavior, and in some cases criminal behavior,” he says. “Obviously, because we are an authority in our communities, we have expectations that our officers not only follow the law but are examples of the way to behave in public. Cameras not only help us answer questions when our officers are falsely accused, but they also ensure our officers are maintaining the values of the police organization. That goes for any police department.”

Getting technical: What features to look for

Steve Tuttle, vice president of strategic communications for TASER, a major manufacturer of body-worn cameras, says some of the most important technical considerations are size and comfort, durability and perspective. If the cameras are cumbersome and constantly malfunction, the department is better off not having a body-worn camera program in the first place.

“It’s almost worse to have a camera that’s not working than not have a camera at all,” Tuttle says. “Because the innuendo behind [saying the camera wasn’t functioning at the time of an incident] is so distasteful and powerful… that you’ve got rogue officers turning their cameras off.”

This durability vs. cost metric was important to the Philadelphia Police Department, which is currently in the process of rolling out their body-worn camera program. Being the 4th largest police department in the country, Philadelphia was looking to purchase over 4,000 units and needed a solution that was durable, useful and cost-effective. “We started off with something like 13 [potential] cameras,” Chief Inspector Michael Cochrane says. “When we took some out of the box, they were already broken. One of them looked like it was put together in someone’s house,” he laughs. 

Tuttle recommends taking a hard look at the options available, and making the selection with cost in mind, but not allowing dollar signs to become the determining factor. “I can’t tell you how many times we’ve gotten business from failed programs,” he says.

The perspective a camera offers is another important consideration. What matters in court is what the officer saw, not the reality of the situation. This is why TASER doesn’t offer infrared options on their cameras. “We mimic the human eye – we want the camera to see what the officer sees in the dark,” Tuttle says. “We’re trying to give juries realistic, contextual information to be the best possible evidence.”   

Miller agrees and says Greenville, seemingly counter-intuitively, sought out lower-definition cameras than the top of the line, ultra hi-def systems available. “High-definition potentially enables people after the fact to see more than the officer could see,” he says. “That can set officers up for unrealistic expectations, and it’s not fair to them.”   

Line-of-sight is an important, related concern. “I want cameras that mount up on collars, on glasses or hats,” Miller says. “That line-of-sight is much better than a camera that’s on the middle of your chest. If you draw your weapon, there’s a good chance you’re going to block a good portion of the view… there are a number of videos out there where it’s very difficult to see [an encounter].”

Another technical consideration is how cameras are activated. For the most part, officers activate their cameras manually, with a buffer of 15 seconds to a minute of time captured before the record button is pressed, depending on the camera and its settings, Tuttle says. 

However, new cameras are coming out that activate via Bluetooth as the result of certain events such as the unholstering of a weapon, the activation of lights and sirens, and the proximity to other active cameras, Ferranti says. The only consideration right now is cost. As the technology improves though, he says, these cutting-edge features will become standard.

Beyond the camera itself, Internet infrastructure and storage solutions are both major considerations. Some camera manufacturers offer cloud-based storage systems for the tremendous amounts of data being held, but many departments will need to update their Internet capabilities to handle such a system. 

Greenville, in anticipation of the additional bandwidth necessary to manage the amount of video they will be processing, has put in a 100-gig-capacity network. “This is probably 75 gigs more than we’re estimating we’ll need,” Miller says. “But people implementing these programs generally underestimate what they’ll need to transmit the video, and as a result, they get frustrated at their download speeds.”  

This was a major obstacle for Philadelphia as well. “Some of our buildings were built in the 40s and 50s,” Cochrane says. “The infrastructure needs have obviously changed, as well as the data lines needed for downloading footage. Buying the camera itself was easy. It’s the data and storage that’s a major undertaking.”

Policy: Making the most of a body-worn camera program

Transparency is one of the most important factors driving the spread of body-worn camera programs throughout the nation; however, there’s a fine line to be walked. “I see transparency as a balance,” Ferranti says. “It’s a balance between opening up everything to everybody – you have to balance that with the public’s interest and you have to balance that with a citizen’s privacy.” 

Ferranti explains that a clear, well-defined dissemination policy must be in place for the release of footage. There are legal implications if officers record an individual engaging in illegal activity, and while there may be public demand to see the footage of a specific incident, the department is obligated to keep that footage secure until trial so any potential jury pools aren’t tainted. If there is outcry that the department is being secretive, clear communication about why the footage is being withheld can usually assuage the issue.

Policy regarding when, where and why officers should be recording is also critically important. When Las Vegas first implemented their camera program, they weren’t exactly sure when officers should be activating them. “In the beginning, we were telling officers that when they get a call, right before you get there, as you’re arriving, go ahead and turn your camera on,” Ferranti says. “Now that we’ve been in this for a few years… we’ve modified the policy to have officers turn on the camera as soon as they get the call.” This way the officer will capture their driving as well as any updates or changes they receive en route. 

This policy helps officers ensure their cameras capture any important details or context of a situation. “It’s better because it gives them the muscle memory to turn it on immediately,” Ferranti says. “A lot of times you’ll have the case where you’re headed to a call that’s calm, cool and collected, but two minutes into the drive, it gets updated to an emergency situation. We train our officers to turn it on immediately and forget about it.”  

How the cameras and footage are used are important considerations, but it’s equally important to craft policy in such a way that officers won’t view cameras as punitive tools. 

Addressing concerns: Creating a camera-friendly culture

One of the biggest sources of apprehension officers feel regarding body-worn cameras is that the footage will be used by the brass to punish them for minor infractions. The 1984-esque fear that “big brother is watching you” is a legitimate concern, and if a camera-friendly culture is to be built, it’s important that officers know the cameras are for their benefit and protection, not to condemn and accuse them. 

Miller says this is the current apprehension in his department. “Even in [police] departments, labor doesn’t trust management,” he says. “It’s the same old historical issue… there’s always that suspicion that exists between the motives of management and the motives of labor and how they interrelate.” 

To mitigate these suspicions, Ferranti says there are two things leadership can focus on regarding footage – content or compliance: Content meaning the quality of the interactions shown on camera, and compliance meaning the rate at which officers are actually recording every interaction.

“Some departments are focused on content right now,” Ferranti says. “We are not. We’re focusing on compliance.” The reason for this, he explains, is if you need to be concerned about the content, someone is going to bring it up. A complaint will be made against the officer, and then you certainly go review the footage. However, Las Vegas’ policy explicitly states that leadership cannot review footage without reason to ensure they won’t go “fishing” for infractions.  

“I’m a sergeant,” Ferranti says, “I have eight officers. I can’t just pull up Jones and go looking through Jones’ video from last week and see how Jones was doing on a call. We feel that if you have an issue with Jones, be out on the road and go to calls with Jones and observe him in the field.” Not only is this a more proactive, direct way of dealing with problematic behaviors, it ensures officers don’t feel micro-managed.  

However, even with such policies in place, many departments feel the intense spotlight placed on police behavior is becoming overwhelming. “I think the challenge for police executives and for cities and for counties across the nation is going to be determining at what point is the scrutiny of police so far tilted that you can’t hire police officers,” Miller says, adding that even without a body-worn camera program in place, Greenville has been carrying 15 vacancies for the past two years. “In some respects, the cameras can be helpful in telling our story and putting controversy to rest,” he says. “At the same time, I think there is anxiety about it.”  

DeAnda agrees. “It’s becoming harder to hire police officers in the state of California because of the scrutiny,” he says. “The role of the modern day police officer is multifaceted. They are domestic violence counselors, they’re drug addiction counselors, they’re youth counselors, they’re mental health workers, they’re social workers, they’re paramedics. They make split-second, life-and-death decisions every day and they do this under immense scrutiny and Monday morning quarterbacking.”

In order to build a camera-friendly culture, officers must feel appreciated for their hard work and sacrifice, not chastised for their every misstep.

In addition to overcoming the resistance to scrutiny, the addition of cameras to a department’s practices is disruptive. Most people don’t like change, and this is particularly true of police officers, Ferranti says. However, he’s noticed that by leveraging the knowledge of younger, digitally native officers, he’s able to get the more change-resistant veterans onboard and willing to embrace the new technology. 

“In training, you’ll have someone like me – a 50-year-old officer – look at it and say “how do you do this or how do you do that,” and then you’ll have the millennials that show up to class having read the manual and uploaded the apps and synced the camera to their phone before they even get to class,” Ferranti says. “I make the joke, ‘Okay millennials, help the older guys,’ but I utilize that resource.”

Cochrane agrees that younger officers are more likely to embrace cameras than their more senior counterparts. “I’m 58, but these younger cops, they grew up with an iPhone in their hand. They’re used to technology, and this is another tool for them.”

One of the best ways to enact cultural change in a department, Ferranti says, is through demonstrating the value of the change. “You have to show them this is the tool, this is why the tool will help you do your job,” Ferranti says, adding that ultimately, that’s what all officers want – the equipment and support to better do their jobs. “[The attitude is] if it’s something that helps us get there faster, great, give it to us. If it’s something that helps us defuse situations, great, give it to us.”

Can't afford not to: Why body cameras are critical

Use of force is never pretty, but the context provided by body-worn camera footage can be invaluable. In Rialto, an interaction went south – the suspect fought the officers, and the suspect’s girlfriend filmed the confrontation. She then uploaded an edited version of the video on several anti-police websites, where it got over a million views and spread virally. 

“The next thing you know, I have every media outlet in front of the police station saying this was the next Rodney King incident,” DeAnda says. Since the video was still considered evidence, DeAnda couldn’t release it, but says, “I invited the news media in, let them review the footage, and they all said, ‘There’s nothing to see here. The officers were justified in their actions.’” 

A potential national bombshell was defused by providing the context of body-worn camera footage. “Had we not had body-worn cameras, think about what the public outcry would have been,” DeAnda says. 

This is why departments are beginning to see these programs as invaluable. Regardless of the upfront costs, the potential savings – both in terms of legal costs and reputation – are immeasurable. 

For more information, watch an exclusive interview with Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department spokesperson, officer Michael Rodriguez, below:


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