Keeping Everyone Honest With On-Body Video

Officer-worn cameras can prove what did or didn’t happen during police and security officer interactions, reducing liability exposures and preserving witness statements.

Take one look at all of the cat videos on YouTube and you’ll know – if you don’t already – that people love taking video. Although the images of fluffy playing the piano are adorable and harmless, those taken by the public of campus cops making arrests can lead to strained police-community relations, litigation and protests, especially if the video only captures part of an incident. Fortunately, officer-worn camera technology can provide objective documentation of what occurred from the beginning of an encounter to the end.

“Everybody is videotaping everything, so we wanted to protect our officers, the university and the state’s interests,” says California State University, San Jose (SJSU) Police Department Administration Bureau Captain Alan Cavallo. “We felt that body-worn video was the best solution.”

On-body video technology captures the emotional states and actions of suspects and victims from the moment the cameras are activated. Review the video of an incident, and you’ll see what the officer perceived to have happened. It could be their view of the interior of a vehicle during a traffic stop or what a suspect appeared to be holding right before an officer-involved shooting. It could be used to hold officers accountable should they behave inappropriately. It could also exonerate them from false allegations of misconduct or improper use of force.

Another benefit of officer-worn cameras is that the video preserves witness testimony in the event that the witness changes their story after the fact. Some jurors may even expect prosecutors to provide video footage of the incident, officers’ reactions or witness statements as part of their case. Without video evidence, jurors might be more likely to discount officer recollections.

Additionally, on-body video extends the range of dash cams, which have been deployed in patrol vehicles for years. Although dashboard-mounted video equipment captures incidents that occur in front of a patrol car (not to mention educating the public on the dangers cops face on-the-job), they don’t capture field sobriety tests or other situations that occur out of the cameras’ field of view. This challenge is particularly pronounced for officers patrolling campuses on foot, entering dorm rooms or other areas that can’t be accessed via a traditional patrol car with a dash cam.

Camera Mounting Options Vary
Officer-worn camera systems consist of a small camera mounted on the uniform, headband, cap, helmet or other area of an officer’s body. In SJSU’s case, as well as Wake Forest University’s, which both have systems from VIEVU, the cameras are clipped to officer shirts in the center of their chests.

“If you wear it on your lapel, you basically get a view of the sky,” says Cavallo. “If you wear it center mass, you typically get the people from the waist up.”

Activation of the cameras is very easy, usually with just the flip of a lens or switch. Some can pre-record, and the cameras normally capture high-resolution images in normal lighting. Low-light situations can pose problems with image clarity, much like fixed cameras that don’t have special features to accommodate for challenging lighting situations.

It should be noted, however, that police departments often don’t want a system with infrared or other types of low-light capabilities. This is because officer-worn cameras with these features don’t provide an accurate representation after-the-fact of what the officer saw during the incident.

“You can imagine that in an officer-involved shooting if what the officer perceived as a threat turned out to be a cell phone,” says Cavallo. “Because the camera is infrared, it would pick it up, but the officer’s naked eye would see it as a threat. That’s why manufacturers have not gone down that road. It has to be what the naked eye would see.

“In a low-light situation when you are looking through the VIEVU, you don’t see very well, but it is what you see as a human being until you introduce whatever outside light source you may have.”

Policies Ensure Evidence Is Admissible
Once the video evidence has been captured, date and time stamps are normally encoded on it. Officers usually can review the files but not make copies or alter them. Policies normally dictate that designated department administrators are the only individuals allowed to make copies to be sent to prosecutors or the courts. Policies should also be developed indicating who can access the videos, how long the files will be retained and under what circumstances the videos can be released. Files should also be backed up, just in case there is a data breach or other network malfunction.

At San Jose State, the video is stored up to 365 days. Copies are made of any arrest-related videos, which are then archived in evidence. 

Cloud storage solutions are also available. With these systems, prosecutors log into a remote website and retrieve the videos they need for a particular case.
Policies should also cover when officers should and should not use the recording technology.

“They use it on every call and every field interview or in a situation that the officers feel requires it to be turned on,” says Wake Forest Assistant Chief of Police Ken Overholt. “We’ve given them a directive that once they get out of the car going on a call, they should just turn it on. We want it to be on when they go into the room or residence hall so it is on from the beginning of the encounter.”

SJSU’s policy strongly suggests that officers record all contacts, including traffic stops, pedestrian stops and calls for service… any time when the officer believes an audio video record would provide value as evidence, limit liability, resolve citizen complaints or as a training tool. SJSU stipulates, however, that video not be used to surreptitiously record another officer.

Officers and Public Accept Video
When Wake Forest was considering adopting on-body video, it had officers do test runs of it to ensure it was appropriate for their community and would be accepted by students, faculty, staff and officers.

“We had different officers wear it and talk to people about it, and we didn’t get any negative feedback,” says Overholt. “The officers at first were kind of curious as to why we’d want to go to these, but once they saw the value of them, it’s just another piece of the uniform.”

San Jose State’s officers didn’t have many challenges accepting the technology either.

“They took to the technology and realized the value of it,” says Cavallo. “How many times have you been to the scene of an incident where somebody’s standing there with a cell phone camera video-taping you? [Officers] get it. They understand it’s to their benefit to have video and to be part of the solution as opposed to part of the problem.”

Of course, it’s one thing to get officers to accept the equipment. It’s quite another to get them to actually use it.

“It’s another thing to add to their arsenal, and they have to realize, ‘Hey, this is a situation I should be recording,’ and they have to flip the lens,” adds Cavallo. “It’s not that big of a deal, but we have had a few incidents where we wish we had recordings, and we didn’t. The officers just forgot to turn it on. It’s one of those things where we are continually training, and hopefully they will get to the point where it’s almost automatic.”

Security Guards Can Use It Too
The te
chnology is not only appropriate for use by police officers, but also nonsworn security officers.  Both SJSU’s and Wake Forest’s security officers have on-body video. At San Jose State, however, the policy with nonsworn staff is somewhat different to that of police personnel.

“We’ve instructed our security guards to tell people, ‘I’m recording this conversation,'” says Cavallo. “It hasn’t been challenged and we haven’t had an issue with it, but it makes it cleaner when we have a contact with someone that that person is put on notice. [The subject] has the right to record the officer as well, so it goes both ways.”

If the subject tells the guard they don’t want to be recorded, the officer will then turn off the video camera.

Road Test Before You Buy
So how should other departments considering the adoption of on-body video determine if the solution is right for them, as well as which brand they should adopt?
Cavallo recommends campuses have officers test the equipment in the field first.

“Some companies will send you their equipment and let you use it for free, so I would highly recommend that,” he says. “Give it to the people who are going to use it. Let them play with it and make sure they can’t break it too easily.”

Once the brand of solution is determined, Overholt recommends campus public safety departments not have officers share the cameras.

“We did find at the very beginning when people were sharing them that there were issues,” he says. “We determined that getting each officer his own was the best way to go.”

Video Helps Disprove Complaints
Since 2010 when Wake Forest adopted on-body video, Overholt claims it has come in handy several times.

“We’ve had four internal investigations brought on by complaints, and they were determined to be unfounded based on the videos,” he says. “Someone said the officer did something, and we went back to the video and found that that wasn’t true.”

His department has also applied it in judicial hearings.

“Individuals have stated something that was opposite of what occurred or what they admitted to us in person, and we’ve been able to show that that was not the actual event or what they actually said.”

Photos courtesy Vievu

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About the Author

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Robin has been covering the security and campus law enforcement industries since 1998 and is a specialist in school, university and hospital security, public safety and emergency management, as well as emerging technologies and systems integration. She joined CS in 2005 and has authored award-winning editorial on campus law enforcement and security funding, officer recruitment and retention, access control, IP video, network integration, event management, crime trends, the Clery Act, Title IX compliance, sexual assault, dating abuse, emergency communications, incident management software and more. Robin has been featured on national and local media outlets and was formerly associate editor for the trade publication Security Sales & Integration. She obtained her undergraduate degree in history from California State University, Long Beach.

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