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What to Know about Body Cameras

What to Know about Body Cameras

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Brian Humenuk | Author | COPJOT

By Brian Humenuk, COPJOT  

Updated on August 1, 2023

8 minute read

What you will read about in this article

How long police officers have been wearing body worn cameras

Are body worn cameras beneficial to a community

How much do body worn cameras cost

Does a police body worn camera change police officer discretion

Do lawyers benefit from police body worn cameras

Do body cams change the direction of a criminal court case

Do body worn cameras benefit a police officer

How do you get a copy of body worn camera video

How long do police departments keep body worn camera footage

Do Officers need to notify me that I am being recorded

When do Law Enforcement Officers activate their Body Cameras

Can a Police Officer record me in my home

1. Introduction to Police Body Cameras

Few other topics in policing have garnered the opinion of different groups, including law enforcement  themselves, over the police use of body worn cameras. Their entrance into policing is nearing 20 years and a lot has happened since their first implementation in the UK. The world has watched events both good and bad after being recorded on body cam's all over the world giving a different perspective to viewers that has never been seen before.

What has followed since 2005 Is that body worn camera technology has improved considerably, the public opinion has garnered a positive trend and the statistical data has shown improvements in an array of policing areas like use of force complaints and transparency between the police and community leaders.

2. How long have police officers have been wearing body worn cameras?

Police body cameras were first worn in the United Kingdom in 2005 and shortly thereafter they started becoming adopted worldwide. In the United States the Rialto Police in California Before implementing its program, Rialto police launched a yearlong study in 2012, deploying wearable cameras to roughly half of its 54 uniformed patrol officers at a given time. The department saw an 88 percent decline in civilian complaints against officers and use-of-force incidents plummeted 60 percent.

Multiple sources, including the Washington Post, cite the events in Ferguson, MO let to expanded use of police body-worn cameras. On December 2, 2014, President Barack Obama proposed that the federal government reimburse local police departments half the cost of implementing body-worn camera programs.

On September 21, 2015, Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced that the United States Department of Justice had disbursed $23.2 million in grants "to expand the use of body-worn cameras and explore their impact." The grants were given to 73 local agencies in 32 states.

What to know about body cameras | COPJOT

3. In what ways are body worn cameras beneficial to a community?

A body worn camera program for the police is an investment in police / community relations and community policing. The camera system costs money and tax payers will foot the bill for whatever a grant program doesn’t cover. Like building a new park or community building where elders can go the body worn camera program is a long term investment and ongoing investment that stakeholders hope will strengthen a community.

There are several benefits that communities can embrace by electing to have a body worn camera program. Going a bit further the amount of benefits will depend on the makeup of a community and the relationship it has with their police department. For instance, if a community is divided or has issues with trust or even police violence the program will be more beneficial to that type of community then one that is already trusting of the police and has minimal use of force issues.

Transparency is defined as being open and honest. It is something that communities who lack trust in the police crave because they are suspicious as to what goes on in the dark or at least when nobody is looking. For these types of communities a body worn camera program is a way to feel that they are on a level playing field when it comes seeking information about incidents.

A body worn camera program is intended to increase police officer accountability as well as increase transparency between law enforcement agencies and the community. For any law enforcement agency trust between them and the community is paramount. Without trust the police are one bad incident from loosing many important things to operate.

What you should know about body cameras | COPJOT

4. How much do body worn cameras cost?

Body- worn cameras have become one of the biggest costs for local and city municipalities, counties and states along with agencies for police, costing millions of dollars. Prices range from $600 to $800 per unit and all the way up to $1,500 to outfit each officer.

Some features that will affect price are storage capacity and ability to upload to cloud storage, video resolution, battery life and whether or not they will power the camera for a full shift, capability of night vision

The biggest cost is archiving and administrating all that data in accord with the requirements of the law, including rules of evidence and Freedom of Information laws. Police departments will need to budget for hiring and or training administrative staff on laws and policies along with how to download and prepare the data. Camera equipment will also need to be updated and repurchased because the technology is much like a cell phone where you need to replace it every few years.

It doesn’t end there as police unions will surely look at wearing a body camera for their whole shift as a change in working conditions triggering negotiations with government whether that be for a yearly bonus or extra paid time off. This will all calculate into how much do body cameras cost.

5. Does wearing a police body worn camera change  officer discretion?

Law Enforcement Officers enjoy having discretion when it comes to making decisions that will change or alter the direction of a person’s life or when other needs of department resources are more importantly deployed elsewhere and officers need to cut breaks. The use of discretion is written in many police department’s policies and procedures so that police officers can understand that they don’t have to arrest or even charge all individuals.

One place that police discretion has been narrowed by law and policy is that of domestic violence in which most states require an arrest of the aggressor.

Because officers wearing cameras will know that there may be a superior reviewing footage they can be worried that judicious use of discretion may lead to discipline. In other words, officers will lean towards not cutting breaks and following the criminal and procedural law when it comes to violations.

6. Do lawyers benefit from police body worn cameras?

At the end of the day lawyers practice law for a living and they need to get paid for their services unless they are practicing pro bono. Body cam footage can be the subject of motions to move the court and discover for further investigation. Both add time to cases and cost money. Think of it this way, somebody has to pay for a lawyer to review an hour of body cam footage and then prepare a defense around it.

7. Do body cams change the direction of criminal justice outcomes? Does body cam video help to prosecute a case?

A Police Body camera can change the direction of criminal court cases in a few different ways.

  • Video evidence of any kind and not just from an officer wearing a body camera can solidify the prosecutions case and cause a guilty plea or other plea to be made.
  • Body cam footage can weaken a case if a police officer is found writing a report that doesn’t reflect the actual event caught on camera.
  • Body camera footage can be a part of the fruits of a poisonous tree meaning the footage can be thrown out if reasonable suspicion or probable cause was not met to justify an action.
  • Actions and behaviors by law enforcement observed on the body camera footage could sway a jury. For instance, the professionalism or lack of professionalism by a police officer could help or hurt the prosecution of a case.

8. Do body worn cameras benefit a police officer?

There are multiple ways in which body worn cameras can benefit a police officer and the following are a few of them:

Depending on how a police agencies policy reads a police officer will have a clear understanding of when the video and audio start to record. It is then that the police officer can be on center stage. A perfect example of this is pulling over an erratic operator which turns into an arrest for DUI.

The camera footage will start a period of time before the traffic stop is initiated and will record all the way through their time in booking. Utilizing the body camera footage a perfect case is gift wrapped for the prosecution.

Another benefit for police officers is the recording of calls in which they have to check a home during a burglar alarm. The body camera footage is a second set of eyes and which can protect officers in case something is report missing or stolen.

Body cameras keep police officers in check during traffic stops and on the other side it records the motorists that have an attitude with the officer.

Body cams can provide officer safety and can be the determining factor in an event when a suspect decides to become violent or not.

As long as the officer and the camera are legally present the BWC can provide video evidence or digital evidence especially at crime scenes that can be preserved.

9. How do you get a copy of body worn camera video?

One of the biggest questions that body worn cameras produce is that whether the video will be available for public release. Laws in each state address the release of public records and large departments usually have existing policies and offices to deal with public records requests.

Camera footage may also be the subject of the evidentiary sharing process as to a criminal or civil court case. The citizen or requestor will need to file a request for public records following the agencies policy which may just be a form that needs to be filled out and filed with the records division. From there the video will need to be prepared by personnel. These types of records requests take time so be patient and if you need to follow up it is always a benefit to be courteous and polite.

10. How long do police departments keep body worn camera footage?

It depends on specific state guidelines or agency policies. We found that this time frame can vary anywhere from “not specified” in Baltimore to 5 years in Atlanta. Many agencies fall somewhere between and some have clauses to extend the time in storage such as a filed complaint or ongoing investigation.

11. Do Officers need to notify me that I am being recorded?

This question cannot be answered with either a yes or no. Many agencies do not require notice be given to a person that they are being recorded and on the other hand according to the Brennan Center for Justice some departments require or encourage an officer with a BWC to inform members of the public that they are being recorded. There are two frequently-cited reasons for this approach. One is a concern for privacy. Another is the possibility that people will be less confrontational when they know they are being recorded. 

12. When do Law Enforcement Officers activate their Body Cameras?

Many of the policies that we looked at more or less read:

  • Body Cameras should be activated whenever a user interacts with a member of the public, including but not limited to, when a user arrives on an enforcement or investigative scene and during any contact that becomes adversarial after an initial contact in a situation that would not otherwise require a recording, unless such activation would pose a serious threat to the user’s safety or is otherwise exempted by agency policy, in which case it should be activated as soon as it is safe and permissible to do so.

13. The following is a guideline as to when body cameras should be recording:

  • All calls for service and while en-route to emergency calls.
  • Pedestrian stops, including consensual encounters and “Terry stops” (a brief detention of a person by police on reasonable suspicion of involvement in criminal activity).
  • Traffic stops.
  • Foot and vehicle pursuits.
  • Consensual or warrantless searches.
  • Executing search warrants.
  • Arrests and detentions.
  • Transports (driving with a prisoner).
  • Other adversarial encounters or situations where criminal activity is likely to be recorded.

14. Can a Police Officer record me in my home?

In the event that an officer seeks entry into a home, or other place where there exists a reasonable expectation of privacy, based on a justification of consent only, the user should give verbal notice or otherwise make the individual[s] aware that the interaction is being recorded.

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