The Importance of BWC Training and Policy from the Officer’s Perspective

Wayne A Alsup, Research & Planning, San Antonio Police Department

Police cruisers across America; showcase such popular catch phrases as, “To Protect and To Serve” or, “Serving Our Community”.  Perhaps replacing these phrases with a more tangible creed would be appropriate, such as, “Transparency, Accountability, and Officer Compliance.”  With departments racing to outfit their officers with body worn camera’s (BWCs), there are not only concerns about transparency, accountability and officer compliance but also funding, training and policy.  The question commonly asked is, “Is it worth it or not?”  In the meantime, BWCs are being deployed to police departments all over the world.  Dealing with the topics of transparency, accountability, and officer compliance should start with a sound policy. Almost every department deploying BWCs has a policy in place, primarily to tell the officers what they are allowed and not allowed to do regarding BWCs.  The policies inform officers when they must activate, deactivate, mute, and so on.  There are consequences for those who do not follow the rules, whether or not non-compliance is deliberate.  Individual departmental policies vary considerable regarding the types of events where cameras shall or must be activated or deactivated.  Clarity is important, but policies cannot anticipate every conceivable circumstance.   So what happens when officers enter ambiguous situations that BWC policies do not address explicitly? 

Keep Calm and Remember Your Training

Compliance begins with training and training should include a good mix of policy, state and Federal laws, and hands-on practice with the camera technology.  It is critical that officers understand the importance of the BWC and why it is being used.  Officers being taught BWC policy and laws will quickly learn what they can and cannot do under routine circumstances.  Policy should address protocols such as; how and when to use the BWC, what to do when there is a malfunction or loss and what types of events to record.  Each department will fine tune its own policies according to what works best for the communities its officers serve.  Officers should also be trained on what their rights are when complaints or allegations arise regarding the use of BWCs.  If a department has officers who work off-duty jobs regularly, the regulations regarding off-duty job should be clearly outlined as well.  Hands on scenario training and written tests, can help determine whether the officer fully understands the BWC policy.

A Manager says, “Go”, A Leader says, “Let’s Go”

A well-trained and knowledgeable supervisor can help settle officers’ uneasiness regarding BWCs.  Supervisors should be trained in the same manner as their officers, and should use discretion regarding minor noncompliance issues involving their officers.  If it is determined that a willful and serious compliance violation has occurred, then the appropriate punishment should be administered as per departmental policy.  For example, an officer loses his BWC during a foot chase and waits several weeks to report the loss, continuing his duties without a BWC.  This could have serious repercussions for the officer and the department.  Supervisors play a very important role in making sure that their Officers are in compliance and more important, that they stay in compliance.

Houston We Have a Problem

During a recent training exercise, an officer asked a question regarding accountability: “When I pull my firearm, my hands and forearms are in the way of the BWC and you are unable to see the video clearly. Do I move the BWC or my hands?”  The very act of asking this question (though no questioning should be discouraged) could indicate a compromise of officer safety.  Officer safety always comes first-so in this case, don’t worry about the camera.  Is this a compliance issue?  I suggest that it is definitely not.   If an officer is approached by a member of the community in a non-threatening manner that quickly turns violent, the officer doesn’t have time to turn on the BWC, so this should not be a compliance violation.  Policy should reflect that encounters such as these may happen.  In the event of such an occurrence, officers and supervisors should have the confidence and understanding that it will not be considered a compliance violation.  Some states such as Texas-in Senate Bill 158, allow that an officer may deactivate the BWC during any non-confrontational encounter with a person.  For accountability purposes, the officer is required to document why he or she did not activate the BWC, for accountability.  According to Senate Bill 158, justification for failing to activate includes “unsafe, unrealistic, or impracticable” circumstances.  Senate Bill 158 also adds that officers are not required to keep the BWC activated for an entire shift, giving the officer some down time for personal reliefs and breaks.  The law allows officers to access any recording of an incident involving the officer before a statement is given.  Officer discretion pertaining to activation can be complicated and must be clearly outlined with a strong policy and/or laws, this can help towards a healthier work environment for officers to feel like they have rights too.  Most situations happen with less than a moment’s notice, and officers need to know that they are not bound by impossible expectations but, protected by clear and concise BWC policies.

Let there be light

Some people feel an obligation to question every decision an officer makes, causing the officer to question himself. Sometimes, the reason for a decision comes down to “You just had to be there.” Officers are human, they make mistakes.  By eliminating as much of the gray as possible, through sound policy and training, confidence in the BWC is boosted, willingness to comply increases and the ability to be in and stay in compliance is achievable.  Officers want to serve the community they work and live in.  Citizens want to trust and respect the officers they hired to do the job.

 

Wayne Aslup has been with the San Antonio, TX Police Department for 23 years. He is currently the administrator of the BWC program for the Research and Planning Unit. He was also a key partner in helping develop the SAPD’s General Manual Procedure/Policy for the BWC project. Prior to his work on the BWC pogram, he worked patrol, bike patrol, traffic and commercial vehicle enforcement. Officer Alsup has also received training and certificates as a TCOLE instructor and a Taser/AXON instructor.