In-Box: Using police body cameras

November 2, 2016

To the editor:

As a law firm that primarily handles criminal defense and civil rights matters, people often ask us, do you think body cameras will help your business? The truth is: The only business that should benefit from body cameras is the business of law enforcement.

As lawyers, we have a tendency to become more than a little myopic when it comes to the impact of police body cameras. Primarily, we focus on how police body cameras will help or hurt legal cases. Yes, we are sure the cameras will produce a treasure trove of evidence for courtrooms (and the media). And yes, we are sure the video will exonerate some (criminal defendants and officers alike) and inculpate others. But, for a moment, let’s put that aside to consider something else.

Companies spend millions of dollars annually, invest thousands of hours, and employ untold numbers of people to make sure that they are providing consistent, high-quality service to their customers. Training for modern call centers involves individuals reviewing previously recorded interactions to learn how to handle challenging customers. Supervisors review subordinates’ calls to determine if they are providing the type of service that the company expects. Companies even use their recordings to measure and generate data on a host of metrics, including how long a caller must wait to have their issue resolved, how long until the caller reaches a person, and the level of courtesy shown by the agent handling the call. In short, calls are recorded so that companies can become better, more efficient and more effective.

Law enforcement shouldn’t just want this ability; they should be clamoring for it. In fact, any use of body camera footage that ignores it as a long-term data gathering tool is simply short-sighted. Body camera footage is not merely the solution to litigation; it’s the solution to countless other problems as well.

Concerned that there is discrimination or favoritism in the interracial promotion of law enforcement officers up the chain of command? Command staff can review a selection of the officer’s on-the-job body camera footage and evaluate it according to metrics that the department sees fit. Concerned officers need more training in de-escalating tense situations? Use selections of body camera footage to illustrate in trainings the ways in which other officers have effectively de-escalated verbal altercations, and show footage of instances where officer behavior has escalated tensions. Concerned that officers are not getting sufficient praise for their hard work, heroism and selflessness? Review body camera footage for instances of praiseworthy conduct by officers and single those officers out for award or commendation.

From a quality-assurance perspective, there are countless opportunities for law enforcement to utilize the data gathered by body cameras for their benefit and improvement. And it would be shocking if there were not business or policy schools at major universities that wouldn’t happily undertake the analysis on behalf of law enforcement. The key is for the police and the community to see body cameras as data generating tools, mechanisms that allow for the identification and correction of both short-term and long-term trends, goals and policing objectives. Unfortunately, the rhetoric against pursuing body cameras has circled around two major distractions: the cost of implementing the cameras and the cost of storage.

While body cameras certainly are not free and the storage of large amounts of data is not cheap, this cannot stand against the realization that the information generated by body cameras is invaluable. Private companies have seen the value in this type of investment for years. To become better at providing a service, you must monitor to make sure you have the best people and that those people are performing at their best. To become more effective at providing a service, you must monitor to make sure that you are promoting those individuals who are effective leaders and have a firm understanding of the values that you are seeking to instill. To become more efficient at providing a service, you must be able to empirically measure the service that you are providing and make necessary changes in training and execution to see department-wide improvement.

So, as the discussions continue, and detractors and proponents alike espouse how body cameras will provide better evidence, exonerate law enforcement officers, exonerate or convict defendants, and how it may be too expensive to do any of it, please take a moment and appreciate how much we would gain if, the next time someone was pulled over by an officer, we first hear, “This traffic stop may be monitored for quality assurance purposes.”•


Bradley Keffer and Scott Barnhart
Partners, Keffer Barnhart LLP