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Cover Story

On-Body Video: A Double-Edged Sword

On-body video systems can protect officers from lawsuits, but agencies need to be prepared for the footage to go public.

July 16, 2012  |  by - Also by this author

Photo: Mark W. Clark
Photo: Mark W. Clark

When Sgt. Troy Burnett of the Ogden (Utah) Police Department burst through the door of a residence during a search warrant service, his response to the sight of a man charging at him and his fellow officers with a MacGregor Lite golf club was predictable: He fired his .40 caliber Glock 22 to stop the threat. About the last thing on his mind at that moment was the helmet cam he was wearing, but it was one of the first things that his supervisors and others reached for in evaluating his decision to fire.

After reviewing the images captured on video during the September 2010 drug bust, Weber County Attorney Dee Smith concluded that the suspect was a half-second away from closing the distance and making good on his threat. His opinion was reflective of most who've taken a long hard look at the incident: Burnett's shooting of 45-year-old Todd Blair was clearly justified.

But when that same footage found its way to the Internet courtesy of the Salt Lake Tribune, a less empathetic audience criticized Burnett's actions. Before long, Burnett was receiving death threats; even his children were subject to harassment.

The outcomes of our profession's growing use of videos to chronicle the actions of its personnel have varied from good to bad. Rarely is this as attributable to the technology itself as how it is used, or misused, by others. Until recently the technology was limited to traffic stops and perhaps some critical incidents. Now, video can be used to document every aspect of a law enforcement officer's shift. But the question that each agency has to answer remains: Is that a good thing?

"I am a huge fan of any camera," says Sgt. Ken Farr with the Lakeway (Texas) Police Department. "From an officer's standpoint, it gives me protection from any false allegation."

Indeed, for many years video footage taken with dashboard-mounted cameras has provided the public with greater understanding of the dangers that officers face in the field. Extending the range of the traditional dashcam, the increasing use of portable cameras worn on an officer's uniform or body has been particularly beneficial in documenting volatile situations that take place out of eye line of car-mounted cameras.

Frank West, former director of public safety (fire and police chief) with the city of Big Rapids, Mich., never had an opportunity to wear uniform cameras—but his officers did.

"It actually got to the point where they would complain if one didn't work," notes West, who became something of an advocate himself. "As an administrator, 90% of my use was positive. When the complaining citizen was shown what had happened, they went away."

Today, any officer-involved action is subject to being recorded, if not by the officer, then by others at the scene. Less favorable legacies of partially recorded events—most infamously illustrated by the Rodney King incident—include strained police-community relations, civil litigation and possibly violent unrest, as well as the potential for suspects to be given the benefit of the doubt while officers are unduly painted in a bad light. A distinct advantage to officers wearing video recording technology is the opportunity to provide objective documentation of what transpires during an incident, from start to finish.

Body-worn cameras capture the emotional state of the suspect and victims inside the house on domestic violence calls from the moment the door opens. On traffic stops, these devices record the visible interior of the car and the actions of the driver and passengers from the officer's viewpoint. Upon later review, these videos provide more convincing testimony about the precursors and causes of an officer's actions than the officer's word alone. Statements made and actions taken by people at the scene are not easily refuted later. In those incidents that take place in front of an in-car camera, additional body-worn cameras afford secondary—and more fluid—perspectives of the same event.

In addition to assisting investigators in clearing complaints against officers, the use of body-worn cameras also facilitates the collection of witness testimonies in the field. Brian Muller, a sergeant with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, notes that it hasn't always been easy to conduct a supervisory investigation in the aftermath of a deputy-involved use of force, particularly as it relates to interviews of participants and onlookers.

"One nice thing about this technology is that it avails a low-profile means of getting people to speak with you candidly without being so consciously aware of the fact that they're being videotaped," says Muller. "Usually people clam up when they see a video camera in such close proximity for fear that their homies and others may end up seeing them talking with police."

There are other less obvious ancillary benefits to body-worn technology. For one, it helps reduce the time spent documenting an arrest. It has become standard practice for many narrative blocks to feature two simple words: "See video." In these instances, the picture is truly worth more than 1,000 words.

Advancements in video recording technology over the past decade have led to improved video quality using less cumbersome cameras. Most body-worn cameras today offer 640-by-480 resolution, providing a clear picture under normal lighting conditions. And companies that produce body-worn video for law enforcement are increasingly improving their products to provide better sound and picture quality in real-life field environments such as low light and inclement weather.

Particularly suited for recording low-light in the field is the Axon Flex camera developed by TASER International. Capable of recording images at .1 lux—less light than is emitted by a full moon on a clear night—the Axon Flex provides clear point-of-view images of car interiors and nighttime situations. Videos taken at dusk by the Axon Flex are as clear as if taken during daylight hours.

Tags: On-Body Video, VidMic, TASER Axon, WatchGuard Video, Digital Ally, Ogden (Utah) PD, ACLU Activism, L.A. County Sheriff

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Comments (8)

Displaying 1 - 8 of 8

DaveSAM25G @ 7/16/2012 11:14 PM

FYI: Albuquerque NM Police
APD gets new tools to prevent stop crime

http://www.krqe.com/dpp/news/crime/apd-adds-new-technology
APD adds new technology
Updated: Monday, 16 Jul 2012, 6:10 PM MDT
Published : Monday, 16 Jul 2012, 6:09 PM MDT

Dave Bryant @ 7/21/2012 11:40 AM

As an Police Officer, D.T. and Firearms Instructor who has been in two shootings, I have been interested in these issues for years. In fact I invented and patented a Critical Incendent Recorder 15 years ago that used a continous loop to record audio before and after a shooting. I offered it to Motorola and TASER (who came out with a video version later) but there was no interest. It is important to consider that one who uses this information needs to be educated on what the camera sees and does not and how the Officer's perceptions differ. Dr. Bill Lewinski has does great research in this area.

Thomas J. Nelson @ 7/22/2012 9:55 PM

I may be just repeating some post but I'll roll the dice I would be nice for male officers to have when alone with female subjects and/or juvy's but having said that big brother don't break the rules no worries be safe

Robert J. Fraser @ 7/23/2012 1:44 AM

Really interesting article. Here in Australia we are having similar issues with wearing a 'body camera'. There is some push-back from the police services generally, it does offer some protection/evidence for officers working alone here.

I believe that some trials are underway however.

westcoastleo @ 7/23/2012 2:32 PM

I've been with the LASD in the field for 32.7 years. I'm a still active Sergeant with the department. I've seen all of the new toys and worthless items put out for a long time. The public wants more and more accountability on all LEO's over the country. All the new gadgets that are made to help us usually turns against us after a short time. You can have an overhead aero unit with cameras, a button cam, a audio feed, a scent detector and all of the other tools placed on your body and around you, but it will not make a difference. If the top brass and the local, state, and federal over sight units and politicians think you are wrong or are a racist, you will still loose. The public will still lie, yell, kick the loud can and protest to have you fired or put in jail for what they believe to be wrong or violated. You can have a button camera with audio, and have a man in front of you pointing a gun at you, and if you shoot him, someone, somewhere will still complain.

Brian @ 7/24/2012 1:19 PM

@westcoastleo

If you have full coverage and there are no grey areas in what you are doing, you shouldn't have anything to worry about. Isn't that what law enforcement always tells civilians? Guess you guys will just have to make that a true statement.

wofpup @ 7/25/2012 1:58 PM

Working within the same dept as Westcoast (Sgt) but having a few more years on the dept., I have to agree with his comments. The bad guys or public will never agree with our decisions or what we do. We're all racist pigs and always use unnecessary force. Having a body video is nice, but it's always going to be a double edge sword. It's "Damn if you do and damn if you don't", type of situation. What we see and do as an LEO, the public will never understand our perspective. The respect for law enforcement no longer exist. The public will raise hell about an incident, even if a video shows LE was in the right. An attorney will attempt to make the officer look bad and use the past or another incident to make a point. The bottom line is, no matter what we do right, someone will twist it around and tarnish the our (officer's) reputation. I feel sorry for the future of LE. To the Guys/Gals of LE, remember to be safe, and go home to the family. The heck with the idiots and their thoughts. You and your partner come first. God Bless LE.

coptrainer @ 10/1/2012 6:10 AM

It is a fact that video evidence offers a true and accurate depiction of exactly what the lens saw, which is not necessarily in context with the overall event. It is incumbent upon the agency to offer perspective to what was captured by the cam.

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