As dozens of cities and counties prepare to deploy wearable cameras to better protect the police and the public, they must first grapple with several decisions associated with the rollouts. Chief among them: what products to choose, how officers will use them, where to store the footage and for how long.
Although many in state and local governments view body cameras as a way to improve transparency and accountability, IT managers should be aware that the first-generation technology has a few shortcomings. For instance, many cameras don’t let officers upload video wirelessly — they must connect the camera to a computer. What’s more, most of the early units have manual on-off switches and don’t start recording prior to an event. Officers are accustomed to more mature in-car systems that typically record a 30-second buffer. Fortunately, second-generation wearable cameras that address these problems will hit the market later this summer.
As wearable camera technology matures, here are seven details for states and localities to consider as they plan their deployments.
Implement a policy.
Wearable body cameras are simply tools for collecting evidence. Both the public safety department and individual officers will be held liable for recorded incidents. Stipulate in writing when cameras should be used, and set expectations with the public on when the department will release videos.
Develop a formal external release policy that complies with state law.
Washington, for instance, has broad public right-to-know laws on the books requiring law enforcement agencies to produce most evidentiary videos upon request. In Minnesota, the right-to-privacy of the subject being recorded takes precedence, and agencies have refused to release videos accordingly.
Set standard operating procedures.
Decide where officers will wear the camera (on the lapel, cap or shirt front, for instance) and let them know what’s expected of them. Typically the scenario includes turning on the camera as the officer exits the patrol car, informing the subject that he or she is being recorded and, if state law warrants, asking permission. Officers are told not to turn off the camera until the encounter has ended and they’re back in the cruiser, because a suspect could flee or other circumstances could change before the officer returns to the car.
Understand the features and benefits of the cameras.
Know the camera specifications inside and out. Most body cameras lack location awareness, and battery life often won’t cover a full shift. On the plus side, some camera models offer speech recognition for hands-free operation, and still others support playback of the footage on the device itself.
Focus on storage.
A department’s storage needs will increase exponentially as use of body cameras grows. Some departments store everything indefinitely — an unsustainable and expensive policy. Establish a retention policy for evidence that will help manage storage over long periods of time. For example, consider storing footage of a felony traffic stop for five years, but keep misdemeanor incidents for only one year. Departments must also decide if cloud storage makes sense for them.
Investigate digital evidence management systems.
This back-end software stores, manages and shares evidentiary video files. Manufacturers such as Panasonic and Vievu offer such back-end systems with their products. Whichever digital evidence management system an IT manager selects, make sure it supports the three forms of video most police departments manage: wearable, in-car and video from interview rooms.
Never roll body-worn cameras into production without first testing two or more units for a minimum of 30 days. It’s important to know how the devices perform in the field, how easy or hard they are for the officers to use and how durable they are under the strain of actual police work. Vendors typically have demo and pilot programs for evaluation purposes.
Practice due diligence.
Before choosing a camera model, talk to different police departments around the country. While wearable cameras are fairly new, some departments have been using them for a few years. Ask about lifecycle replacement, failure rates and how the batteries perform after a year. Also learn how the department handles video storage and how well the manufacturer or reseller supports its product.
As the American Civil Liberties Union has indicated, with the right policies in place, body cameras can become an important tool for police departments nationwide. Take some time to learn about the features and benefits of the devices, and develop policies and standard operating procedures that are understandable to the public and the officers.