police body cameras


Surfing the body-worn camera wave

Body-worn cameras (BWCs) are the next wave of policing.  If law enforcement officials aren’t careful, however, the wave may drown them rather than carry them to shore.

In mid-January, the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the Major Cities Chiefs Association, SafeGov.org and the Police Foundation hosted a day-long review of the current state of deployment of BWCs at the Newseum in Washington, D.C.  If the expert recommendations from that event could be summarized in a single phrase it would be: “Proceed with caution.” 

The move to BWC deployment occurs in the context of a broader discussion of the proper role of police forces around the world and, at least in the United States, the nature of the interaction between police and the citizens they are sworn to protect.  In a post-Ferguson world, many outside observers see the use of BWCs as a panacea.  They argue (with some real evidence to support the contention) that using BWCs reduces police misconduct, citizen complaints about police behavior and citizen misconduct when engaged by the police. 

That’s why so many agencies are moving ahead with BWC plans.  In 2013, only 25 percent of departments in a Police Executive Research Forum survey indicated they were using body-worn cameras. Today, according to a recent study by the Major Cities Chiefs and the Major County Sheriffs, almost every major police department in America is planning to move toward BWC deployment.  As of late 2015, 19 percent of those surveyed had fully deployed BWCs, and 77 percent said that they were moving toward implementation at varying stages.  That means that fully 96 percent of the largest police agencies in America were somewhere on the spectrum of BWC deployment. That’s a significant sea change in how police will operate.

How will that change occur and what are some of the pitfalls?  The key takeaway from the conference was that, first and foremost, agencies must have a plan.  Many experts report departments that have moved to purchase and use BWCs without giving significant consideration to all aspects of the change.  Agences that rush ahead without preparation risk being drowned in a wave of new implementation and policy contradictions.  Some of the pitfalls are obvious; others have come as a shock to many who are moving toward implementation.  Here are just a few of the issues that experts identified:

Data storage. How much data will be collected and how will it be stored?  Most law enforcement agencies estimate that their officers will each collect roughly 1 gigabyte of data each day the BWC is in use.  For a force that deploys BWCs to 200 officers, that means 73,000 GBs, or 73 terabytes, of data each year. Some larger agencies thought they might need as much as 1 petabyte (or 1,000 terabytes) of additional storage given the amount of video they expect to collect and the length of time they need to store it.  Given that volume, the consensus view was that cloud storage was both inevitable and, for efficiency reasons, preferable.

Network capacity. What are the IT requirements for BWC and is there enough capacity?  Many (though not all) agencies reported the need to expand, if not significantly improve, their current network architecture.  How much improvement will be needed and what will it cost?

Operational costs. What other life-cycle costs of operation should be considered?  One agency, for example, found that it would likely need to add two attorneys (to a staff of only 10) to handle freedom of information requests and to ensure that released video was appropriately redacted.

Even beyond these prosaic problems of cost and implementation, many agencies also reported significant challenges in defining and adopting policies regarding how BWCs should be used in practice.  Consider just a few of the following questions:

  • What is the recording policy for when the cameras are on and running?  Longer recording times mean more data to store.  Shorter may mean less public acceptance and support.

  • How long will the data be kept?  Local laws may govern data retention but provide some odd answers.  One agency, for example, reported a state law that required storage of some felony-related video for 20 years. 

  • When will the data be released and to whom?  Defense attorneys, obviously, should have access if charges are brought, but what about the public?  What freedom of information law applies? 

  • Can the video be redacted before release?  One of the few agencies that declined to deploy BWCs reportedly did so because of concerns for the privacy of victims.  Videos involving minors and victims of sexual assault and spousal abuse are of particular concern.

As should be apparent, BWCs are a net positive for police and the communities they serve.  But law enforcement agencies risk being swamped with negative consequences if cameras are deployed without careful thought and consideration.  Riding the wave of change is difficult, but it can be done successfully.

About the Author

Paul Rosenzweig is a senior adviser to The Chertoff Group, a global security advisory firm. He formerly served as deputy assistant secretary for policy at the Department of Homeland Security.


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