Body Camera Policy and Training

Implementing a successful body-worn camera program is a lot more complex than choosing your preferred vendor and slapping those cameras on the uniforms of your officers.

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If you've ever wandered the trade show floor at conferences such as IACP, SHOT Show, NTOA, or the myriad regional events across the country, you know that technology designed to improve the performance of the men and women in law enforcement is constantly evolving.

From durable laptops and mobile phones, to more powerful radios—both handheld and in the squad car—to new and more effective dispatch capabilities, online crime reporting, crime scene analysis tools, and just about everything else that police agencies use to serve their community members.

One area of police technology that has exploded on the scene—not just in terms of technological advancement but in terms of the number of vendors in the marketplace and the expectations of politicians, the public, and the press—is body-worn cameras.

Agencies across America have decided to purchase body-worn cameras—the number is unknown but of the 18,000+ police departments in the United States, it's pretty safe to say that about half have already put cameras on their officers' uniforms. Generally speaking, those implementations have been successful.

However, there are pitfalls that police leaders need to see clearly as the rollout begins and the use of those devices becomes part of the daily "routine" of an officer's shift.

Here are some thoughts to bear in mind.

Write Sound Policy

First and foremost in preparing for the implementation of a body-worn camera program is is to write sound policies and procedures that balances officer safety with the increasing pressure for "transparency."

When must the cameras be turned on? Typically, this is in any event involving a citizen contact, but there are exceptions.

Many agencies allow (even require) officers to turn off their cameras in certain cases such as when conducting an interview with a child victim of alleged sexual assault.

Of course, the camera goes off when an officer has to use the restroom—that's just common sense but if it's not written down, it doesn't exist.

Model policies exist and are "open source" so much of them may be simply copied from the Internet and adapted to fit with the rest of the agency's policies.

Prepare for the Public

Be thoughtful—and flexible—about when to release video to the media following a controversial event. Have a pretty clear idea about how you will handle the pressure from the media to reveal what was captured on video. Have a solid handle on how to deal with redaction of faces of innocent, non-participants at an incident who were captured in the video.

Know how to explain—in layman's terms so that everyone can understand, that if no video exists, it may be because the technology failed, or an officer's camera got dislodged from his/her uniform during a struggle. Be prepared as a police leader to deal with whatever questions come pouring down on you like sheets of rain in a thunderstorm.

No two incidents are exactly alike and each needs to be treated carefully and with due respect for the known facts of the case. And this concept needs to be written in the manual and well-understood not just by the agency employees, but by the people who might pressure you from outside the department walls for "transparency." 

Train, Train, Train

Implementing a body-worn camera program is a lot more complex than choosing your preferred vendor and slapping those cameras on the uniforms of your officers—ensuring that officers fully understand the policies written for their use, the capabilities of the devices themselves, and training those men and women to effectively use the devices in high-stress situations is paramount.

Creating a new physical skill takes time, energy, and effort—and many, many repetitions. It should begin with training the trainers—academy and in-service—on how to operate a BWC in a high-stress, rapidly unfolding, potentially deadly situation. They already have to do things like fide cover/concealment, draw a sidearm, return fire if needs be, and remember every last element of the event for the report.

Start slow—have your officers practice this new skill in a safe and "blocked off" environment—the academy maybe, or even the squad room before briefing. Repetition, repetition, repetition.

Then practice in a variable/random environment—maybe the use-of-force simulator at the academy or during other forms of training that already exist such as real-world simulations with role players.

The point here is, simply sticking a nifty piece of gadgetry on an officer's uniform can go wrong in a hurry if the adequate amount of training isn't done. It'd be like a flight instructor taking a young aspiring pilot who has only a handful of take-offs and landings up to 5,000 feet, killing the engine, and saying, "OK kid, where are you going to land?"

I know from firsthand experience, because I was that young pilot many years ago—I put the airplane down on a golf course and they had to dismantle the wings and take it out of there on a flatbed truck.

The time to learn a new skill is before things go sideways, not when it actually happens.

Final Words

All police policies, procedures and police training, it's more like a quilt than a blanket—boxes of different colors and textures representing K-9, Motors, SWAT, Patrol, Dispatch, and the rest—that all come together in something oddly at once beautiful and confusing. Adding BWCs to the inventory of equipment your officers carry is one more square in that quilt.

Policy must be well considered and officers need to be well trained—worst-case scenarios must be taken into consideration, as well as all of the many potential benefits BWCs present for officers and police commanders alike.

BWCs can help protect officers from false accusations, provide tremendously powerful evidence for prosecutors at trial of individuals who have committed crimes, and increasing the quality of the connection between the police and the public.

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Doug Wyllie Crop Headshot
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