Writing Your Department’s Body-Worn Camera Policy
A step-by-step guide for your law enforcement agency.
- How to develop your plan.
- What you need to consider.
- Implementing your policy.
It’s unclear exactly how many law enforcement agencies currently use body-worn cameras. Statistics from the Department of Justice showed that, in 2013, one-third of local police departments used them.
In a recent survey, 95 percent of respondents were either planning to implement a body-worn camera program or had already done so.
Body-worn cameras are a valuable tool for law enforcement officers. Body-worn cameras can increase accountability, provide crucial evidence, and even reduce citizen complaints. However, body-worn camera use also brings up complex issues of privacy.
Before your agency can begin using body-worn cameras, you must develop good, thorough policy to guide their use.
In a webinar with PowerDMS, Chad Marlow, who does advocacy and policy counsel at the ACLU, said body-worn camera policy must strike a balance between the interest of your law enforcement agency and the interest of the public you serve.
“The importance there is trying to look at each individual tension point when you’re trying to create good policy,” he said. “See how it falls out on both sides and to try to find that sweet spot between those two interests.”
But what tension points do you need to consider? And where do you begin in writing a policy?
Here’s our step-by-step guide to writing a body-worn camera policy for your department.
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Step 1: Do Your Homework
You don’t have to start from scratch when you’re figuring out how to write a policy. In fact, you should always consult with experts before you start writing any policy.
Body-worn camera use involves complex regulations, privacy laws, and civil rights issues. So far, 25 states have created laws guiding the use of body-worn cameras.
Work with your General Counsel to see what state or local laws may impact your jurisdiction’s use. But don’t settle for just complying with state laws.
Seek out subject matter experts and civil rights organizations to find ways to create a balanced body-worn camera policy. Look for conferences, symposiums, trainings to get guidance about how to implement BWCs.
Spend some time talking to leaders at other agencies that are using body-worn cameras. Ask about the problems they’ve faced with body-worn cameras, what their policies cover, and how they do training.
Step 2: Write a Foundational First Draft
Once you’ve consulted with lawyers, experts, and other law enforcement officials, you’re ready to start writing.
Before your agency starts outfitting officers with body-worn cameras, you should write a foundational draft to examine and hone. Your first draft won’t be perfect, but try to make it as thorough as possible.
Here are some of the essential parts to include as you’re writing the draft of your body-worn camera policy:
First, clearly state why this policy exists.
Starting with the purpose allows you to communicate intent and balance. Include a brief overview the value that body-worn cameras will provide to your agency.
Some agencies also use this area to specify which requirements and standards this policy satisfies.
The key point of the policy section is to authorize body-worn camera use by officers.
This section will likely be short and to the point.
List out your department’s intended uses for body-worn cameras. For example: gathering evidence of criminal activity, providing information for performance evaluations, conducting training, etc.
Either in the purpose or policy section, include any departmental guiding values that shape the policy directives for body-worn cameras. These may include professionalism, transparency, or integrity.
You may also wish to address any major objections your community has to body-worn cameras.
Body-worn cameras aren’t guaranteed to be an effective tool for your department. How your officers use them will determine how much value they provide to your department.
Therefore, it’s essential that your agency provides clear guidelines for body-worn camera use.
Of course, every community has different needs and challenges. You will have to determine the individual procedures that are appropriate for your community and department.
No matter the size or location of your department, here are some areas you may want to consider when crafting the initial draft of your body-worn camera policy:
Who will wear body-worn cameras and when?
Will all your officers wear body-worn cameras, or only those on certain types of duties, such as patrol?
This may vary depending on the size of your department and how many cameras your department has.
Generally, the ACLU recommends that only “officers with the authority to conduct searches and make arrests shall be permitted to wear a body camera.”
You’ll also need to decide what allowances you will make for undercover or specialized assignments.
Will this policy apply to officers in those situations, or should they defer to a different policy particular to their assignment?
Help With Your Body-Worn Camera Policy
See for yourself how PowerDMS can help you create and manage your bwc policy.
When will cameras be activated and deactivated?
Unlike dashboard cameras, which may automatically switch on when officers turn on lights or sirens, body-worn cameras usually require the officer to activate recording.
Body-worn camera policy must clearly establish when officers are required to switch on and off their cameras.
Think carefully about this. If officers are continuously recording during their whole shift, it may bring up problems of privacy and make officers feel like the department doesn’t trust them.
However, giving officers too much discretion over when to record is also problematic.
In the event that an officer fails to record a controversial incident, citizens or courts may accuse the officer of purposely turning off the camera.
Some of the exact specifications of recording will depend on your department’s equipment and storage capacity.
But many experts, including Chad Marlow from the ACLU, suggest having officers record any interaction with a member of the public.
Your body-worn camera policy will also need to specify the circumstances when an officer can stop recording.
Should officers record in private residences? Interactions with witnesses who wish to remain anonymous? Interactions with crime victims, especially those of a sexual nature? In any of these cases, are they barred from recording in all circumstances or only after an individual asks the officer not to record?
Laying out specific circumstances in your policy can help protect individual privacy.
It can also address the concerns of officers who fear that body-worn cameras will interfere with their work.
What notice does the officer need to give about recording interactions?
In many states, it’s illegal to secretly record someone.
In order to follow these regulations and guard community trust, officers may need to notify people when they’re recording. Your department’s body-worn camera should specify how and when this will happen.
At what point should the officer notify the person that they’re being recorded? Is there a standard verbal notification or some sort of posted notice (e.g. a pin or sticker) near the device?
How will recordings be stored and used?
Body-worn cameras gather hundreds of hours of footage, and your department must decide up front how to store that data. Not every recorded interaction is helpful for law enforcement purposes, and your department probably has limited storage space for digital files.
Here are a few questions to consider:
- How will your department differentiate between relevant and irrelevant footage?
- How will officers flag that footage as relevant?
- How long will your department retain each type of data?
- How will your department use recordings?
- Can officers view recordings prior to filing incident reports or only after a report is written?
The Policy Behind Body-Worn Cameras
Learn how Parker P.D. worked with the ACLU on their body-worn camera policy.
Who has access to recordings?
Most people recorded on body-worn cameras will not be suspects of crimes.
Your department’s body-worn camera policy must protect the privacy of citizens caught on tape in routine police work. You also have to decide how to handle public records requests.
A few things to consider:
- Can people in the recordings request access to a copy of the video?
- How and when will you use redaction software to protect people’s identity?
- How will you disclose recordings to public, especially those in active investigations or potentially harmful to the department?
- What safeguards will you put in place to restrict access to the recordings?
Are there any prohibitions to their use?
Body-worn camera technology is always changing, so it’s important for your department to create some overall restrictions to how your officers can use them.
For example, you may prohibit your officers from filming in bathrooms, locker rooms, hospitals, schools, or while they’re in squad cars or on break.
Some departments establish guidelines for future data use, such as prohibiting the use of facial recognition software to gather intelligence on citizens in body-worn camera footage.
Step 3: Evaluate Your Draft
A thorough draft will provide a good foundation for you to discuss your body-worn camera policy with relevant stakeholders inside and outside your department.
This will ensure that you have everything covered and don’t overlook any major issues.
First, share your preliminary draft with General Counsel to get your legal advisors on board and make sure the policy accounts for all local and state laws.
Next, reach out to a policy or body-worn camera expert to review your draft. Experts will help you address complex issues and make sure there aren’t any holes in your plan.
Finally, share your body-worn camera policy draft with your district attorney. Also get input from officers, command staff, IT, and other support staff who will be directly impacted by your agency’s body-worn camera use.
You probably won’t want to share the draft with everyone early on. Instead, invite several key influencers from each group to share their feedback, questions, and concerns.
If you know going into the policy-writing process that there are particularly vocal critics, you may consider inviting them into the process earlier than others.
Step 4: Disseminate and Train
Parker Police Department Lt. Chris Peters says distributing policy and training staff can be the biggest struggle for law enforcement agencies.
“The biggest thing is the buy-in, the staff boots on the ground and how they’re going to react to such a change in how you do your job,” he says.
A policy management software such as PowerDMS can ensure that every one of your officers reads and signs off on your body-worn camera policy.
Reading the policy can help officers see and trust the purpose behind your agency’s body-worn camera use. This trust builds buy-in.
Some agencies choose to start body-worn cameras off with a pilot program. Using a smaller group of officers to test the program may help you further refine your policy and training.
Just like any policy, your body-worn camera policy should be a living, breathing document.
It’s essential that your agency craft effective policy before starting to use body-worn cameras. And as your officers use body-worn cameras in the field, make sure to regularly review and update your policy and procedures.