In an effort to capture evidence about specific incidents involving police officers, more and more agencies across the country are considering the implementation and feasibility of department-issued body cameras (PDF). However, law enforcement officers—as well as the general public—have voiced concerns about the utilization of body-worn cameras.
Officer Concerns and Benefits
Many current law enforcement officers have mixed opinions about strapping on a body camera for work.
On one hand: Many officers are concerned that cameras are stationary and not 360° panning. This causes concern that the camera will not adequately capture all the elements of an encounter that cause an officer to react.
On the other hand: During the course of a career, just about every officer experiences the profanity-laced, legal dissertation from the “I know my rights” suspect. It can be incredibly frustrating to arrive in court to find a defendant dressed professionally in a suit with an angelic demeanor that’s completely opposite of the person who was arrested. Using cameras to capture that person’s true character and behavior can be very beneficial when it comes to prosecution.
Additionally, a camera is an unbiased witness. Notwithstanding the difference of interpretations and biases, the camera will only add to the amount of evidence that law enforcement can bring to court. Officers should think of it as a way to bring the judge and jury to the streets with them.
After implementing body-worn cameras, many agencies have seen a dramatic drop in complaints against officers. Moreover, cameras have been credited for immediately neutralizing the defiant attitudes and criminal orientations of suspects when they realize they are being recorded for evidentiary purposes. Officers should keep in mind that, as long as they have not created a custodial environment, suspects often don’t know when to remain silent!
Best Practices for Camera Use
Officers should embrace body-worn cameras as another tool that can help them gather more evidence, give the legal fact finder a new vantage point from which to make decisions, and aid in the successful prosecution of cases.
[Related Article: RoboCop: Wearable Technology for Policing]
Provided there is a clearly articulated and understood policy for the use of cameras, this tool will put the control of an encounter back in officers’ hands.
Following some best practices will ensure a smooth integration of this invaluable tool into the law enforcement profession:
- Departments should have a clearly defined and vetted camera policy. In the test phase, officers should have discretion as to when the camera will be utilized.
- Officer should be briefed on the new policies and have an opportunity to seek legal guidance to ensure they know the law. Do not rely on “they said I could” or “they told me to”—immunity only extends so far!
- Unless clearly written in the policy, officers should consider advising citizens that they are being recorded. More times than not, this will result in positive attitude changes.
- Have clearly articulated standards for evidence storage and preservation.
- Be transparent in your use and non-use of cameras with community partners.
- Participate in ongoing training pertaining to equipment use, and stay compliant with new emerging case law and other applicable laws concerning the use of cameras.
There is much debate in the legal community regarding privacy concerns with the implementation of cameras. Questions have been raised about what recorded footage is going to be considered private and what is considered public. Recording consent laws differ by state.
Keeping in line with the legal history of Fourth Amendment protections, the U.S. Supreme Court has always balanced the degree of government intrusion against a citizen’s reasonable expectation of privacy. While this is a delicate balance, most police-citizen encounters occur in a public place or where an officer has legal justification to be. Therefore, the court is not likely to see recording encounters as an unreasonable intrusion into privacy.
About the Author: Dr. Chris McFarlin has more than 10 years of experience in the criminal justice system, holding positions in both law enforcement and corrections. Additionally, Professor McFarlin has served as a state prosecutor and focused on complex criminal litigation while in private practice. He currently serves as the Director of Criminal Justice for a college in SC, in addition to serving as an adjunct professor of criminal justice for American Military University and American Public University. Lastly, Professor McFarlin is commissioned as a reserve deputy sheriff for his local sheriff’s office. He received his double B.A. in Criminology and Sociology from Arkansas State University, a double M.S. in Criminal Justice and Criminology from Indiana State University, and his Juris Doctorate from Texas Southern University. His professional associations include the American Bar Association, Arkansas Bar Association, Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences, SC Law Enforcement Officers Association, and the Southern States Police Benevolent Association. You can contact him at Christopher.McFarlin73(at)mycampus.apus.edu.