Rolling out a body worn camera program for your agency is more than just handing out the equipment, demonstrating for your officers how to put on the equipment and showing them the on/off switch. There’s a myriad of questions — both immediate and downstream — that come into play when an agency implements such a program.
Join us for this recorded webinar as Dr. Michael White and Assistant Chief Brenda Buren from the Tempe Police Department share insights regarding the Bureau of Justice Assistance’s Body-Worn Camera Policy and Implementation Program, and the National Body-Worn Camera Toolkit. including:
- the principles and strategies that serve as the foundation of the best-practice implementation guide,
- and the experiences of one police department that adhered closely to that guide
Justice Clearinghouse Editors (JCH): Mike, you’re new to the Justice Clearinghouse audience. Can you tell us more about yourself and your unique expertise in this arena?
Dr. Michael White: I am a Professor in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Arizona State University, and the Associate Director of ASU’s Center for Violence Prevention and Community Safety. I received my Ph.D. in Criminal Justice from Temple University in 1999. Prior to becoming a professor, I worked as a deputy sheriff in Pennsylvania for about 2.5 years. Over the last 20 years, I have conducted research with and for the police on a wide range of issues, from use of force (officer-involved shootings and use of the TASER) and misconduct to problem-oriented policing and body-worn cameras.
The last few years of my professional life have been dominated by police body-worn cameras (BWCs). My work with BWCs began in late 2013 when I wrote a report for the US Department of Justice called Police officer body-worn cameras: Assessing the evidence. The report provides an overview of all the issues that come into play with BWCs, the perceived benefits and concerns, as well as what the evidence tells us about the technology’s impact. In January 2015, I testified about BWCs before the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing.
More recently, I have worn “two hats” with BWCs. The first is a traditional academic hat. I just completed evaluations of BWC programs in Spokane (WA) and Tempe (AZ). The project was funded by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, and both studies employed randomized controlled trial research designs. I have published a number of papers/reports detailing the results of those studies, examining a range of topics including officer perceptions of BWCs, citizen perceptions, and the impact of BWCs on use of force, citizen complaints, and officer activity levels.
The second hat I wear is much more practical and “nitty gritty.” The US Department of Justice (DOJ) has a grant funding program, called the Body-Worn Camera Policy and Implementation Program, whereby law enforcement agencies can submit grant proposals for the purchase and deployment of BWCs. As part of this program, the US DOJ created a Training and Technical Assistance (TTA) team to support agencies who receive federal grants for BWCs, and I am the Co-Director of the TTA team. As part of that work, I help agencies with a wide range of issues including policy development, training, procurement, stakeholder engagement, and research. To date, 260 agencies have been funded through the US DOJ funding program, resulting in the deployment of more than 52,000 BWCs across the country. I co-lead the team that has helped each one of those agencies with the BWC program.
I also do a fair amount of media interviews on BWCs, including Scientific American, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post, TIME Magazine, NPR, and MSNBC. And I am also writing a book on BWCs for New York University Press with my colleague, Dr. Aili Malm from California State University, Long Beach.
BWCs have significant implications for citizens, businesses, advocacy groups,
“downstream” criminal justice actors (especially prosecutors), schools,
and others who work with the police (e.g., fire department).
A police department should be open and collaborative when planning a BWC program.
JCH: There’s a lot of areas that are ripe for research in the justice arena… What drew you to doing research in the area of body-worn cameras?
Mike: Originally, I fell into this area by happenstance. The US DOJ asked me to write the Assessing the Evidence report in late 2013, and to be honest, I did not know a thing about BWCs. But as I did my research for the report, I became intrigued by the potential for the technology to improve policing. The Assessing the Evidence report was published in April 2014, a few months before Eric Garner died in Staten Island and Michael Brown died in Ferguson. By the end of 2014, a national crisis in police-community relations had emerged, and many were looking at BWCs as a tool that could help alleviate this crisis. The problem was that advocacy groups, the federal government, and numerous other groups were making claims about the impact of BWCs that were largely unsubstantiated. We were in desperate need for evidence that could provide an informed debate about the potential impact and consequences of BWCs. So I (along with a handful of other researchers) secured some grant funding and got to work. My goal is to produce research that is meaningful for the law enforcement community, and BWCs represented a perfect opportunity to do just that.
JCH: You have a lot of experience in this arena and have worked with law enforcement agencies in developing their programs: what are the biggest misconceptions (or perhaps false assumptions) local law enforcement agencies have about body worn cameras?
Mike: There are a few important misconceptions that come to mind. The first is that BWCs are easy. If you are the chief, buy some cameras, show your cops how to turn them on and off, and send them out to do their job. But after you buy the cameras is when things get really complicated. A BWC program is a huge investment in resources, financial and otherwise. The technology touches every unit in a police department. A department needs to develop a detailed administrative policy to guide officers with BWCs. They need to develop a solid training program. They need to be aware of all relevant local, state, and federal laws, particularly those involving privacy and public records release. They need to figure out a process for monitoring officer compliance with BWC policy (e.g., activation). And they need to figure out how to securely store all of the video data that will be captured. Bottom line: BWCs come with a high degree of difficulty, and if implemented poorly, you can actually do more harm than good. The Bureau of Justice Assistance, US DOJ, has developed a range of resources to help with BWC planning and implementation, such as a National Body-Worn Camera Toolkit and a Law Enforcement Implementation Checklist. I urge those who are just starting with BWCs to take advantage of these resources.
A second misconception is that police can roll out a BWC program on their own. That is a huge mistake. BWCs have significant implications for citizens, businesses, advocacy groups, “downstream” criminal justice actors (especially prosecutors), schools, and others who work with the police (e.g., fire department). A police department should be open and collaborative when planning a BWC program. They should invite feedback from as many external stakeholders as possible. An open and collaborative approach on the front-end will greatly reduce resistance and opposition on the back-end. Many police departments adopt BWCs as a show of transparency. The key is to be transparent throughout the entire BWC planning and implementation process.
The third misconception is that BWCs are a silver bullet that will solve all a police department’s problems. BWCs are a tool – a useful tool for sure. But they are just a tool. They cannot single-handedly repair decades of tension between police and citizens. They cannot eliminate bad policing. They cannot provide “movie quality” video and audio of every single police-citizen encounter. There is also the potential for human and technological error. An officer may forget or choose not to activate the BWC. Or the camera may be activated but it may not actually provide evidence about what happened. For example, during foot pursuits and struggles with residents, the video from a BWC can become unwatchable, or the device can fall off the officer.
In short, the added advantage of BWCs over dashboard cameras is that the BWC goes where the officer goes; however, this can also be a limitation. We need to be cognizant of those limitations.
My goal is to produce research that is meaningful for the law enforcement community,
and BWCs represented a perfect opportunity to do just that.
JCH: Let’s assume an agency has gotten the funds to implement a body worn camera program. What’s the most important thing they should consider before handing out the equipment that agencies are most likely to forget or overlook?
Mike: First and foremost, a department should figure out why they are deploying BWCs. What is your goal? Is it for a show of transparency? Is it for enhanced evidentiary value? Is it for police accountability? Or perhaps some combination of those goals? The structure of a BWC program can vary considerably based on the goals.
Second, a department should engage all of the relevant stakeholders, both inside the department and externally. Engage with the officer union. Talk to patrol sergeants. Get input from folks in the IT and records departments. Work with city government on funding and procurement. Meet with citizen and advocacy groups. Give them an opportunity to ask questions and express concerns. The more collaborative on the front-end the better.
Last, policy, policy, policy. A clear, detailed, and enforced policy is the foundation of a good BWC program. We have 50 years of academic research establishing administrative policy as the most effective way to control and guide officer discretion. We have seen this with use of deadly force, less lethal force, auto and foot pursuits, and arrest decisions in domestic violence cases. Policy works. Officers’ use of BWCs can similarly be guided by good policy. When should officers activate? Do they have to notify citizens of the BWC? When can officers review their footage? When can supervisors review footage? When does the department have to release footage to the public? These are critically important issues that need to be addressed in policy.
Through my work as Co-Director of Training and Technical Assistance for the US DOJ grant program, we have a created a Policy Review Scorecard to help agencies develop a comprehensive policy that addresses all of the relevant issues. The Scorecard rates comprehensiveness on 41 specific issues across 11 general categories. The Scorecard is publicly available and can be used by any agency to facilitate policy development An effective BWC program is grounded in good policy.
Click Here to Watch “What Law Enforcement Agencies Need to Know to Implement a Successful Body Worn Camera Program.”