As 21st century law enforcement officers, we are issued thousands of dollars’ worth of gear, weapons, tools, and lifesaving equipment. Each of these gadgets has a specific use, and a prescribed way they should be properly deployed. Much of our kit requires training that is mandated by our agency.
When a new recruit is given their handgun, they spend an entire day in a classroom, empty-handed, learning the functioning of the pistol, before ever heading out to the range. Once on the range, they may receive up to 80 hours of hands-on, practical instruction on how to use the weapon to maximize its effectiveness. Every year thereafter, that same officer must qualify to demonstrate continued proficiency.
When an officer is issued a TASER, they are taught about the nomenclature of the device; how it functions; and how to draw, aim, and fire it.
We receive tactile, real-world training on how to deploy pepper spray or mace, and even experience what it feels like to be sprayed, so we can fully understand its potency.
We are also trained to use tourniquets, seat-belt cutters, window punches, and AEDs.
Cops even receive training on how to hold their flashlights.
So why have we been given body worn cameras and never been trained on how to use them to their utmost potential, and to our greatest benefit?
Over the last 15 years, body cameras have become almost universal in American city and county law enforcement agencies. Body cameras have also become instrumental in successful criminal prosecutions, as they generally leave little doubt as to the unfolding of actual events. Nationwide, body camera footage has caused spurious accusations against officers to plummet, as ill-intended cop-haters know that their conversations with officers have been recorded. Even in the increasingly rare occasion of false allegations against an officer, body camera footage has exonerated thousands of our honest brothers and sisters. With the potency of body cameras so evident, perhaps a few points of training are in order so that we can fully capitalize on the capabilities of these powerful devices.
We should begin to see the body camera not as something passive, that we simply wear, turn on, and then it captures evidence of our behavior and the behavior of the people we contact. Our BWC should be a proactive tool, much like our firearm or TASER, which we should learn to actively use to our greatest benefit and advantage while on duty.
Often in the past during a courtroom cross-examination, officers have been grilled on their innermost thoughts and motives during an incident, as defense attorneys attempt to twist and tangle an officer’s decision-making processes in front of a jury. With the assertive use of his body camera, an officer can now simply train himself to, in real time, narrate his thoughts which will be evidence presented to a future jury. During a probable cause search of a vehicle, for example, an officer can train herself to narrate and justify her actions, even speaking in first person to the court: “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, we are now conducting a probable cause search of the vehicle, based on the overwhelming odor of marijuana, coupled with the driver’s admission that he has been smoking marijuana today, which is illegal in our state.”
As the probable cause search continues and the body camera records, the officer reaches underneath the driver’s seat and feels a handgun: “Good people of the jury, I feel what I believe to be a concealed handgun underneath the driver’s seat. From my experience and before I retrieve it, I believe it to be a Glock brand semi-automatic pistol.” Instead of immediately grabbing the firearm, the officer stands from the car and dons her nitrile gloves, which she explains to the BWC “I am putting on my nitrile gloves in order to properly retrieve the handgun, so as to preserve any fingerprint or DNA evidence which could possibly be collected from it.”
The officer, continuing to narrate a court-worthy roadside felony investigation, removes her still-running body camera from its mount and points it directly at the open driver’s door. Utilizing her flashlight and with her BWC in hand, she aligns the two to point underneath the driver’s seat, as she continues to professionally narrate her actions: “I am using my flashlight and body camera to record the exact position of the firearm before I retrieve it. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, as you can see, the handgun is lying underneath the seat, pointing toward the passenger side of the vehicle.” She then remounts her BWC on her vest, and pulls the handgun from underneath the seat. As she expertly ejects the magazine and racks the slide, unloading the weapon, she continues “the handgun was loaded with hollow-point rounds in the magazine, and one live round chambered.” When this airtight firearm case finally makes its way into superior court, a very impressed and relieved district attorney can simply introduce the case to the jury, and press play.
The most effective police officers are theater-grade thespians, molding their speech, inflection, expressions, and actions to the particular audience of the call they are handling. Officers who strive to proactively use their BWCs as a tool constantly speak to the public with an ever-increasing refinement and professionalism, knowing that should they ever receive a courtesy or rudeness complaint, the body camera footage will prove them righteous. Those officers rightly view their BWC not as a device surveilling them, but as an assertive tool that can be wielded to their tactical advantage.
Having policed for years without a body camera, and now for nearly 10 years with one, I would never choose to hit the streets camera-less. My initial apprehension about the body camera, concern over my own privacy, and worry about constantly being recorded, have now far faded, as I have become convinced of the usefulness of this tool when it is used properly. Don’t fear the BWC, but neither wear it passively like a watch or sunglasses. It is a tool. Use it effectively to protect yourself, build rock-solid prosecutions, and constantly refine your professional interactions with your citizens.
Kory Flowers is a 23-year veteran lieutenant with the Greensboro (NC) Police Department. He trains law enforcement officers nationwide on various subversive criminal groups, leadership, tactical communication, and is a frequent contributor to POLICE.