The BWC TTA Team hosted a webinar on body-worn camera community education and creating reasonable expectations. This webinar provided information about how and why it is important to educate the community on the limitations and benefits of Body-Worn Cameras (BWCs). It also discussed the many considerations that must be taken into account when releasing BWC footage, including privacy concerns, victims’ rights, and on-going investigation needs.
As more and more police agencies across the country implement body-worn camera (BWC) programs, many feel that it is just a matter of time before this relatively new technology becomes an expected norm for the police. BWC programs have already demonstrated that implementation and outcome expectations are far more complicated and challenging than initially expected. It is difficult to identify another technology or tool that police have adopted which comes with such heightened public expectations and scrutiny. For example, compared to a department’s introduction of an electronic control device, a new caliber of firearm, or an improved records management system, the public clearly has more significant interest in and expectations of BWCs. However, most of the public and media likely lack a comprehensive understanding and appreciation about the limitations of BWCs. Some in the public who express distrust of the police may hope that BWCs will, “hold the police accountable like never before,” while at the same time there are many police officers who are eager to implement BWCs in hopes that they make clear the daily challenges, responsibilities, and decisions that officers face. Both perspectives are fair and may prove to be correct, and the police are in an excellent position to educate their communities about the complexities and realities of BWCs.
Lessons learned from the Bureau of Justice Assistance BWC Policy and Implementation Program show that some police leaders, in hindsight, wish they had been more assertive in educating their communities and local media about the limitations of BWC footage, as well as the effects on their agencies’ resources from requests for footage. Some departments found that they could have easily curtailed an initial onslaught of media requests for all footage by describing their states’ Freedom of Information Act laws, their departments’ BWC procedures and policies, as well as their agency’s capacities and limitations in responding to requests. Departments around the country have created community and media forums to provide education on use of force, reasonable suspicion, probable cause, traffic stops, and other issues to provide a better understanding of officers’ actions, responsibilities, and decision making. BWCs should be no different. The challenge of police outreach is determining the best means to reach the target audience. Often, police forums and meetings have the same people in the audience over and over again. Police should identify mechanisms and strategies that can effectively reach communities and neighborhoods with people who do not typically attend or respond to police outreach. The following are some suggestions for how to conduct public outreach and education about BWCs.
Police agencies must be prepared to discuss the complexities of their BWC program, even prior to implementation.
“The challenge is that most aren’t adequately informed or prepared to discuss the complexities of a BWC program when they haven’t yet moved in to the technology.” Captain Dan Zehnder, Las Vegas Police, BWC subject matter expert
Considerations for Educating the Community and Media on BWCs
- Establish a proactive approach to provide your community and media detailed information and expectations about your BWC program.
- Determine the best approach to reach your intended audiences, including the following examples
- Social media
- Police newsletters
- Press conferences and news releases
- Radio spots
- Community forums
- Directed officer outreach
- Command staff and officers attend community meetings
- Develop a specific plan to demonstrate the BWC program’s capabilities and limitations. Some examples include the following:
- Educate the public that BWC footage will not tell the entire story of every police call.
- Point out that a citizen viewer of BWC footage may misunderstand the threat or risk of physical harm, and that human nature often results in unfair second guessing and questioning.
- Point out officers’ training, experience, and knowledge are critical factors in how they approach their calls and that BWC footage does not provide this comprehensive background.
- Provide examples where BWCs fail due to environmental factors.
- The camera may not capture an incident due to reasonable situational factors such as limited lighting, becoming dislodged during a confrontation, or mechanical failure. Such a situational failure should not be equated with officer deception or misconduct.
- Reasonable circumstances, such as an immediate emergency, can contribute to the officer being unable to activate the camera.
- Clearly describe your policy and procedure for BWC footage requests.
- Note that privacy considerations should be factored into all releases.
- Educate the community on your resources and capacity limitations in responding to requests.
- Mention storage limitations, redaction needs, and personnel limitations.
- Recognize that watching any officer’s use of force is most likely going to prompt an emotional reaction by viewers—this does not mean the force was unreasonable. It is important to identify and highlight this reality when educating others on viewing footage.
- Assign an agency go-to BWC subject matter expert (SME). Police have experts in tactics, evidence, investigations, and training; establishing an internal BWC expert can prove equally beneficial.
- The SME should be available to respond to questions on videos that are released to the public.
- Identify key stakeholders, such as prosecutors and community leaders, and enlist their support and assistance with community outreach and BWC messaging.
- Conduct proactive outreach.
- Develop talking points and answers to frequently asked questions (FAQs). Then incorporate that material into regular civic, community, and neighborhood watch meetings. Target the meetings that generally have large turnouts. By developing the material ahead of time, multiple commanders can handle the same topic with a consistent message at different meetings.
- Hold a Facebook town hall meeting so people can learn remotely.
- The chief or sheriff should make direct outreach with any media in the jurisdiction. This sets a tone of openness and inclusiveness that will eventually make it into the news coverage of BWCs, and this openness will earn good will, which is invaluable during a crisis. The chief or sheriff must be prepared to answer all questions in a productive way and set a collaborative tone.
- Establish social media forums where citizens can participate in question-and-answer sessions on BWCs.
Police communications expert and former public information officer Laura McElroy recommends identifying and targeting outreach to your most challenging audiences: “Either invite your loudest critics to the department for a discussion or go to them and meet on their turf. This is an important step for showing critics that the agency values their input and wants to work out solutions as a team.”
- Push out BWC footage that you want the public to see, including the following situations:
- Officer engagement with community
- Officer decision-making
- Officer demonstrating use of force de-escalation
- Officer solving a crime or arresting dangerous suspects
Recognize that BWC outreach needs to be a continuous, ongoing effort.
There are many benefits to being proactive in educating the community and the media about reasonable expectations of BWCs. One of the biggest potential benefits may come when an agency has a significant incident, such as an officer-involved shooting, and its earlier outreach has helped to establish reasonable expectations. This communication can avoid a great deal of confusion, criticism, and stress for both the organization and the community. This article focused on community and media education, but these suggestions also apply to outreach to local government officials.
Video – Body Worn Cameras Explained
In January 2015, the Boston Police Department (BPD) committed to implement a pilot body worn camera (BWC) program for its officers. This pilot was intended to help answer policy questions about how the system would operate if and when fully implemented across the department’s 2,100 officers and to address concerns of officers and community members on the use of the technology. Boston Mayor Martin Walsh and Boston Police Commissioner William Evans committed to a rigorous evaluation of this pilot program. The BPD implemented its BWC pilot program in September 2016.
In FY 2015, the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) funded the Body-Worn Camera (BWC) Training and Technical Assistance (TTA) program to help police agencies and communities implement their BWC Policy Implementation Program (PIP) initiatives and learn lessons from those initiatives for the benefit of other agencies and communities. Since then, the BWC TTA team has responded to over 200 TTA requests, conducted 15 webinars, held 3 regional meetings and 2 national meetings, developed new technical assistance resources, and provided direct technical assistance to over 176 law enforcement agencies across the country.
Through this work, the BWC TTA team has gained a deeper understanding of the complexities and challenges agencies face when implementing a BWC program. Below, we review some of the lessons learned from our BWC PIP agencies over the past two years. These lessons learned should serve as important considerations for agencies just beginning or in the midst of BWC implementation.
1. Have a plan.
As with any new equipment deployment or substantial policy change, agencies must operationally plan how to roll out a BWC program. Planning should be thoughtful, comprehensive, and collaborative, and the plan should include several key factors: identifying program goals, establishing a timeline for deployment, conducting pilot tests, establishing working groups with internal and external representatives, conducting fiscal reviews and preliminary meetings with external stakeholders, reviewing related state legislation, determining staff and technology infrastructure needs, and more (see the BJA BWC Toolkit for guidance on getting started with a BWC program). This planning is fundamental to the implementation process.
2. Be flexible.
Although planning is vital to the successful deployment of BWCs, BWC PIP agencies also stress the importance of remaining flexible throughout the entire implementation process. Plans will change, new state legislation may require policy changes, fiscal changes will occur, equipment may not be as interoperable as promised, and challenges in establishing the infrastructure to support the program will arise. Agencies must be ready to adapt to these uncertainties.
3. Engage internal stakeholders.
Many of the BJA BWC PIP agencies have noted the importance of engaging officers early in the process. Officers should be part of the policy development process, the pilot testing phase, and training development. Actively engaging officers early in the process ensures greater buy-in for the BWC programand greater overall likelihood of success.
4. Engage external stakeholders.
BWC programs must also engage external stakeholdersfrom the community, as well as local government and criminal justice partners such as the prosecutor, city manager, and representatives from the local court system. These stakeholders are essential to the success of the program. Agencies should engage them in the process from the very start.
Agencies seeking to implement BWCs should hold multiple meetings with the community to leverage partners such as the NAACP, ACLU, and victims’ advocates. BWC PIP agencies note the importance of seeking input from the community in the policy development phase and being transparent about each phase of the deployment process. Some agencies have tried various methods (e.g., postcards, online surveys, town hall meetings) to inform, engage, and gather input from their communities.
Criminal justice stakeholders are also vital to a BWC program. Prosecutors are, in many ways, an end user of BWC video. Agencies must work closely with prosecutors to create procedures for efficiently and responsibly transfering and sharing BWC video. Prosecutors and police agencies are beginning to understand the effect BWC footage can have on investigations and prosecutions. Working closely with these partners while implementing BWCs results in better processes and fewer challenges with program management.
Featured webinar: Beyond Arrest: Prosecutor and defense attorney perspectives. Click here to view the webinar
According to the BWC PIP sites, training is integral to ensuring that officers understand the policy and technology. Training should include related state legislation, how to activate, when or when not to activate, how to catalogue and tag videos, reporting requirements, the limitations of the camera technology, and departmental compliance and auditing.
Furthermore, agencies should consider using BWC footage for training. Agencies like the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, the San Antonio, Texas Police Department, and the Sturgis, Michigan, Police Department frequently use BWC footage to showcase best practices and areas for improved tactics and decision-making skills.The BWC TTA team developed a Training Guide as a resource for law enforcement agencies seeking to develop or modify their BWC training programs. The guide provides police instructors with a standardized BWC training template that includes an introduction to issues surrounding the development of BWCs, BWC specifications and operations (which vary by vendor), key issues in policy and practice, and topics related to agency accountability.
Agencies should also consider including community representatives in these training sessions or conducting separate training sessions for the media and public. Not only will these sessions encourage transparency and community buy-in, they will also serve as a means for the public to get an up-close look at how police use BWCs in the field.
Featured webinar: A Spotlight on BWCs and Training. Click here to view the webinar
6. Engage with a research partner.
Though working with a research partner is not a PIP requirement, many funded agencies have engaged with research entities to conduct process evaluations, impact evaluations, or both. Research partners can be a valuable resource during program planning, implementation, and ongoing program management. They can also independently and rigorously assess the BWC program.
Finally, BWC PIP agencies stress the importance of auditing BWC footage. Once BWCs are deployed, agencies should periodically review and audit videos to ensuring officers use BWCs according to departmental policy. BWC footage can also be used to evaluate performance, highlight training opportunities, and identify areas for department-wide policy and procedure changes.
Featured webinar: Considering The Issues Around Assessing Officer Compliance. Click here to view the webinar
With the implementation of BWCs across the country increasing rapidly, there has been little attention devoted to the deployment of BWCs by small agencies, and as a result, our understanding of the challenges of cameras in the small agency context is limited. In order to better understand how BWCs affect small agencies, researchers at Arizona State University conducted a multi-state survey of small law enforcement agency executives. The survey, which was administered via the online survey platform Qualtrics, was sent to all jurisdictions with a population of 8,000 or more in 26 states.
Laws governing how and when police body-worn cameras can be used and whether the footage is released vary considerably across the country. The BWC legislation tracker can be used to find out about passed and pending laws in your state. The tracker will be updated periodically as state laws change.
To view the BWC legislation tracker, click here.