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Lessons Learned from Body Cam Users

Law enforcement agencies that have implemented body-worn camera programs can offer advice to those beginning the process. Here's what some of them had to say.

April 10, 2017  |  by - Also by this author

Photo: Watchguard Video
Photo: Watchguard Video

Law enforcement agencies considering the implementation of a body-worn camera system face a sometimes difficult process. It's not enough to buy the cameras and issue them to officers. There are decisions that need to be made at each stage of acquisition and implementation.

You have to decide what camera systems will best suit your mission, who will wear them, when they will be worn, when will they be activated, and the list goes on and on. As one expert consulted for this story says, "It seems so simple at first, but it can get very complicated." Fortunately, there are resources that you can consult to help you make the process less arduous.

Many body camera vendors have experts on staff who can help you develop your program. But they may not be eager to share with you the good and the bad about adding these evidence capture systems to your agency. So one of your best resources is likely to be fellow officers who have experience doing just that.

For this article, POLICE sought out body camera users at a number of law enforcement agencies nationwide. Here's what they had to say.

Brentwood, CA

The officers of the Brentwood (CA) Police Department started wearing Vievu (www.vievu.com) body cameras in 2011. Lt. Tim Herbert says adding the cameras was a natural progression of the agency's policy of encouraging officers to make audio recordings of interactions between officers and the public. "I joined the department as a reserve back in 1990 and even back then we had to wear audio recorders on our belts," he explains.

Herbert says Brentwood officers wear the Vievu LE3 model, which Herbert says the officers like because of its easy operation. "You slide it open, and it's on. Slide it shut, and it's off. That's easy for officers to remember when they are coming up on a situation," he explains.

The Brentwood PD's long-standing policy of recording contacts made it easy for officers to transition to body cameras, but Herbert says when he is contacted by other agencies for tips on implementing their programs that he always advises them to get their officers onboard with the idea first. "You don't want a fight with the Police Officers Association because you didn't involve them in the process," he says.

In the near future, the Brentwood PD will likely upgrade its Vievu LE3 cameras to the LE4 model. The LE4 has an always-on feature that allows it to pre-record events with a 30-second memory buffer. Herbert says he also plans to test the Vievu Auto-Activation System, which automatically triggers a recording when an officer draws his or her pistol from a Safariland 7TS holster.

Charlotte, NC

Major Stephen Willis of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg (NC) Police Department says he is often contacted by officers at other agencies for advice on implementing a body camera program. CMPD has been fielding TASER Axon (www.taser.com) systems since the North Carolina city hosted the Democratic National Convention in 2012.

Willis says 12 Axon Flex systems were initially purchased for use by motor officers working the Convention. From there the program grew by drips and drabs until the chief ordered a much more substantial rollout. In 2015 CMPD bought 1,400 TASER Axon systems, including 1,385 flex systems for patrol and 15 Body systems for K-9 handlers. Willis explains that CMPD's K-9 handlers spend a lot of time in the woods, and the wires that connect the Flex system to its battery pack and memory unit can snag on tree branches, so the K-9 units have been issued Body systems that are worn on MOLLE vests.

Each of CMPD's divisions now has Axon docks in its roll call rooms, but Willis says installing them was a lesson in unexpected body camera expense. Not only did the department have to upgrade the electrical wiring in its facilities to accommodate the docks, its plans to mount the docks on the walls ran afoul of a provision in the Americans with Disabilities Act that specifies how far objects can protrude from walls in public buildings. Architects had to be consulted to resolve the issue. "We all said we can't believe we are spending this much money just so we can mount these docks on the walls," Willis says.

Willis says he believes TASER's evidence management system Evidence.com is one of the best things about using the Axon system. "The user interface the officers and supervisors use is both user friendly and secure. It also has one of the best audit trails I have ever seen. I can see anything that happens with our video, including the IP address from which someone accessed it. It also has safeguards that restrict access to devices on our network," he says.

Huntsville, AL

Captain Anthony Hudson of the Huntsville (AL) Police Department says the 418-sworn agency selected the Panasonic (business.panasonic.com) Arbitrator BWC body camera because of the system's compatibility with the Panasonic  in-car video systems in its patrol vehicles. Having Panasonic software for the car and body cameras made implementing the program and managing the captured evidence a lot easier, he says.

Huntsville PD started fielding the body cameras about a year ago, rolling them out gradually to the department's different precincts. The department has now acquired 370 body cameras, and they are issued to all patrol officers and investigators below the rank of lieutenant, says Deputy Chief Corey Harris.

Both Harris and Hudson say the Panasonic body cameras have served the department well, capturing evidence and helping officers dispute frivolous and spurious complaints. Hudson adds that the form factor and audio-video quality of the cameras are all well-suited to the agency's needs.

One lesson learned that Harris and Hudson say they want to share with other agencies is to give some serious thought on how to mount the cameras to officers' uniforms. "The clips we used to mount the cameras wore holes in the officers' shirts," Hudson says. Huntsville is planning to use a magnetic mount to eliminate this problem.

Lincoln County, TN

The Lincoln County (TN) Sheriff's Department uses a combination video capture system and radio microphone system from 10-8 Video (www.10-8video.com), the BC-2. Lt. Jeff Bradford says there are three primary reasons the agency chose the 10-8 system.

According to Bradford, the 10-8 Video BC-2 was designed specifically to meet the needs of smaller agencies like the Lincoln County SD. "It was developed by Jubal Ragsdale, who was one of our drug investigators. (He's now retired.) He specifically set out to produce something that smaller agencies could afford to use, and he wanted to combine some equipment, so we wouldn't have so much equipment hanging off of our shirts," Bradford says.

Another reason Bradford says the 10-8 Video system is favored by the Lincoln County SD is that it is a simple system both for video capture and evidence management. "It's really easy to use," he says. "All you have to do is reach up and turn the video on or off by touching one button."

Bradford says the deputies also enjoy the versatility of the 10-8 Video system. "It was made for patrol guys because it connects to a portable radio, but the investigators like it, too. They can disconnect the cord from the radio and use it in the field or in-house for interviews."

Lincoln County SD deputies have even found the system to be very useful in defusing tense situations. "You can play back the video on the camera," Bradford says. "Our deputies really like that because when somebody is getting belligerent they can play the video for them and show them how crazy they are acting. That tends to have a calming effect on some people."

Nacogdoches County, TX

The incident that spurred the Precinct 1 Nacogdoches County (TX) Constables Office to acquire body-worn cameras is one that many agencies have experienced. During a traffic stop on a major highway, an officer got an earful from the driver. But because of traffic noise, the only part of the conversation the video system in the officer's car recorded was the officer's responses, which made the officer look bad. Constable William Sowell realized after reviewing that video that his officers needed something that would capture the actions of the driver and what the driver said.

His officers were using Safety Vision in-car video systems. So Sowell contacted Safety Vision (www.safetyvision.com) and the company sent him its Prima Facie body-worn camera to test.

Sowell says all four of his officers now wear Prima Facie cameras on duty, and not only has the video they captured absolved officers facing civilian complaints, the cameras have been used to show the public what public safety operations look like from an officer's point of view.

For example, just a month after the program was implemented, an officer's body camera recorded a man being pulled from a burning vehicle. Sowell says both an in-car video system and the officer's body camera were activated during the incident. The in-car camera gave viewers an emotionally distant vision of the officer's lifesaving actions. The body camera footage was much more immediate and showed the hazards faced by the officer. "It picked up not just the video, but every sound," says Sowell. "You could hear the injured man moaning, and the roar of the flames."

Sowell's advice for other law enforcement executives who ask him about how to start a body camera program is they need to be aware that drafting a policy for body cameras can be complicated. "You have to think about when to record and when not to record," he says. "It took a little time for us to put a policy together."

In order to create that policy, Sowell says he looked at what other Texas agencies were doing and tweaked them to meet his officers' needs. "Recording people using body cameras creates challenges we never faced before," he says, adding that Texas law now requires that officers train in how to operate a body camera. The training includes what officers should record and what they shouldn't record.

Pennsville, NJ

There are 23 officers on the Pennsville (NJ) Police Department and at first they were not thrilled with the idea of wearing body cameras. Even Chief Allen Cummings says he was skeptical about investing in the systems. But the chief changed his mind when WatchGuard Video (www.watchguardvideo.com) gave him a demonstration of the company's Vista body camera. And now he says his officers "get upset" when they don't have a body camera available for their shift because they feel protected from false complaints by their body cameras.

Cummings gives an example of how the cameras have protected his officers. About three months ago a woman called the chief to complain that her son and his friends were mistreated by a Pennsville officer. Cummings watched video of the incident and what he saw was an officer dealing very professionally with a group of underage teens who had alcohol in their backpacks. He asked the woman to come in and watch the video. "When we were done, she apologized and said she was sorry for bothering me," Cummings says.

One of the things Cummings says he wasn't prepared for when the Pennsville PD implemented its body camera program was the fact the cameras are creating the need for more personnel. "All the defense attorneys now want video from every officer on the scene," Cummings says. "So I now have a lieutenant who spends most of his time making DVD copies of officer videos for defense attorneys." Cummings says the Pennsville PD plans to soon hire a civilian to handle the video processing.

Despite that expense, Cummings believes the return on investment for the body camera program has been substantial. "We now have more guilty pleas in court, fewer complaints against our officers, and I feel the cameras have positively affected our officers," he says.

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