Police officer with a body-worn camera.
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February 28, 2017
    Article highlights
  • Six steps to a balanced body-worn camera policy.
  • Dealing with privacy laws.
  • How Parker PD wrote the nation's best BWC policy.

As communities and governments seek to improve police accountability, body-worn cameras (BWCs) have become a more prominent part of police work.

Discussions of body-worn camera use have intensified in the last few years after several controversial officer-involved shootings.

Cases such as the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson highlighted the problems that can arise when police and public have drastically different takes on an incident.

BWCs can help improve police transparency and community trust. The President’s Task Force on Policing in the 21st Century listed increasing BWC use as a national priority.

In a 2015 survey, 95 percent of respondents were either planning to implement a BWC program or had already done so.

Studies show that body-worn camera use can reduce use of force incidents and citizen complaints. However, BWC use also brings up complex issues of privacy.

Crafting solid body-worn camera policy is a foundational part of creating an effective BWC program. 

This post, which is part of our series on crucial policies for law enforcement, will cover how to create a body-worn camera policy that balances the rights of citizens and the interests of police officers.

It will also look at important questions to consider as you craft a body-worn camera policy for your agency, and potential issues your agency will face with BWCs in the future.

The Policy Behind Body-Worn Cameras

A collaboration with Parker Police Department and the ACLU

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Parker PD and Balanced Policy

The police department in Parker, Colorado, has what is widely regarded as the nation’s best body-worn camera policy.

Law enforcement agencies and civilians have very different views of BWCs, and it’s important to consider both when crafting policy.

Typically, police officers (by no fault of their own) see things through the lens of protecting the officer. On the other hand, civil rights organizations such as the ACLU primarily focus on protecting the privacy of civilians.

Bringing together these different perspectives can help law enforcement agencies develop truly balanced, practical policies.

Officer wearing body-worn camera.

The Parker Police Department began equipping their officers with body-worn cameras in 2015. The department’s leaders worked with the ACLU to create the body-worn camera before launching the program.

Parker PD Lt. Chris Peters and Chad Marlow – who does advocacy and policy counsel at the ACLU – were kind enough to do a webinar with us at PowerDMS to talk about creating balanced BWC policy.

Here are some of the takeaways that can help you as you create a body-worn camera for your agency:

Six Steps to Balanced Policy

1. Start with a balanced philosophy

Marlow points out two different aspects of creating a balanced law enforcement body-worn camera policy.

One is taking into account the interests of the officers who will be wearing the cameras and the concerns of the public who will be captured on the cameras.

The other is balancing the need for greater police accountability and transparency with the need to protect individual privacy.

He says agencies must find the “sweet spot” between the interests of police and the public they serve. Law enforcement leaders must commit a balanced philosophy before they start writing the body-worn camera.

2. Consult subject matter experts

In the years before launching their BWC program, Parker PD’s leaders consulted officers, other agencies, attorneys, research studies, experts from the Police Executive Research Forum and DA’s office, and more.

“What we knew going in is that policy was key before testing and deploying body worn cameras,” Lt. Peters says. “Even a pilot program needs to have a policy written before we could put them out into the field.”

However, even after his research, Peters realized the policy was still missing a piece. He wasn’t sure how to handle the issue of BWCs and privacy.

So he approached Marlow at a conference and asked if the ACLU would be willing to help. Marlow said he was excited to work with Parker PD to help craft working BWC policies.

Peters stresses the need to include people from various areas of expertise when crafting BWC policy. “Do not create your policy in a vacuum,” he says.

3. Create a foundational first draft

Of course, after you set your philosophy and get input, you have to draft a policy.

Your first draft won’t be perfect, but Peters suggests getting the policy as close as you can before sending it around to experts to look over. Do your best to cover the practical and philosophical considerations into your policy.

This will provide a good starting point for revisions and help you reach a finalized version more quickly.

Body-worn cameras in law enforcement.

4. Utilize expert insight to hone policy

Once you have the first draft, collaborate with your chosen subject matter experts to address any problems you may have overlooked.

Peters says collaboration with the ACLU drastically improved the privacy part of Parker PD’s BWC policy.

Police officers don’t always have the expertise to know how to handle the complex, technical aspects of high-liability things like BWCs, he says.

Law enforcement officers can combine their on-the-ground experience with the expertise of outside organizations to craft an effective body-worn camera.

The collaborators may not agree on every issue. But they can meet in the middle and create a strong policy that works for everyone.

5. Disseminate policy and train your staff

Your body-worn camera program will never work if you don’t get buy-in from all your officers. Peters points out that BWCs are a significant change to how officers do their jobs.

So officers need to be involved in every step of the way. To get officers to buy-in, Parker PD sent out policies, asked for officer feedback, held informational meetings, and created a committee of officers to guide the BWC pilot program.

For the committee, Parker chose the officers who had been most critical of BWCs. The department used the feedback from the committee to further revise policies, which helped get buy-in from everyone in the department.

Once they had a finalized policy, Parker PD used PowerDMS to send it out to every officer and make sure everyone read and signed off on the policy.

They also developed a good training schedule to make sure every officer got the information they needed to effectively use BWCs.

Quickly Disseminate Policy Revisions

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6. Continually improve

Even the most robust body-worn camera policy will need to change and evolve. Law enforcement leadership should regularly review and revise the policy as BWC technology changes and officers use BWCs in the field.

“When you put a policy out into the field, you’re going to learn new things that you could not anticipate,” Marlow says.

Every agency will need to adjust policies to address those new challenges, he says.

Peters says that Parker PD is regularly updating and improving their policies, especially those that deal with technology. “Policies need to be regularly questioned to ensure they are still relevant,” he says.

Officer using an app in car.

Questions to Consider

When/where can you shut the camera off?

Marlow says the ACLU suggests that officers should turn on cameras at the inception of any law enforcement or investigative encounter.

The officer should only turn the camera off at the very end of the encounter when they have left the scene. Marlow says making this requirement a clear part of BWC policy protects officers making judgment calls in the field.

The officers can point to the body-worn camera to show why they turned cameras on or off when they did.

Parker PD follows to this rule. Their BWC policy requires officers to turn on their BWC “at the first reasonable opportunity to do so” in any encounter.

However, the policy specifies situations where officers can turn cameras off if asked. This includes “consensual encounters” in places where people have “a reasonable expectation of privacy."

It also applies to taping crime victims and individuals wanting to report a crime anonymously.

In all cases, the officer should capture the interaction where the person asks them not to record. And if an officer doesn’t record an encounter, they must document the reason they didn’t record.

Will officers be allowed to view footage before writing an incident report?

Parker PD policy lets officers view BWC footage for routine police work and reports.

But it prohibits officers from viewing footage if they were involved in a critical incident or if the officer is suspected of wrongdoing.

Peters explains that getting “the organic statement without any other outside influence” is an essential part of understanding the officer’s perception of what happened.

Marlow says that letting officers immediately view footage can hurt their testimony in the long run.

Police officer with camera.

“If officer views a video, you’re going to get the officer’s report testifying as to what the officer saw in the video, not what the officer experienced on the scene,” he says. “Those may be two different things.”

How will you store and release footage?

Body-worn cameras create a lot of data, and not all of it will be necessary for investigations or open cases. Keeping unnecessary footage for too long can threaten the privacy of those caught on tape.

Parker PD retains unflagged footage for a minimum of a year and a maximum of three years. Department policy prohibits anyone from tampering with the video other than deleting old, unflagged footage.

Parker PD’s footage is subject to public records requests, but the department uses redaction software to protect the privacy of the people in the videos.

The Future Power (and Risk) of Body-Worn Cameras

The capabilities of BWC hardware and software will certainly change over the years. But Marlow points out that not every update is helpful.

“An advance in technology is not always an advance for the public, and it’s not always an advance for law enforcement,” he says. “Sometimes, advances in technology can present drawbacks.”

Facial recognition software is one of the developments that may pose privacy issues. The software could allow agencies to track where people are and create a database of people in the community, even if those people haven’t been involved with crimes.

Forward thinking departments should take this into account in body-worn camera. For example, Parker PD’s policy prohibits the use of biometric technology to search video files.

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Good Policy Protects Everyone

No matter how they change in the future, BWCs are here to stay. And no matter how they change in the future, law enforcement agencies must work with experts to create and update good policy to guide their use.

As Peters points out, “Policy writing today must be a collaborative effort with all stakeholders and subject matter experts, or it lacks legitimacy.”

Good, balanced policy protects both the officer, the community, and the agency. Not only from litigious threats but bodily harm as well. That’s why it’s essential to be always training your staff as these technologies evolve

Developing, distributing, and training officers on BWC policy is part of serving and protecting the public.

As Peters says, “Sound policy today will protect your officers and your agency tomorrow.”

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