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