Audits and Compliance Reviews Can Strengthen Body-Worn Camera Programs

Audits and Compliance Reviews Can Strengthen Body-Worn Camera Programs

Scot Haug

 

The rapid rollout of body-worn cameras (BWCs) by agencies across the country has been unlike the adoption of any other technology in the history of law enforcement. Societal demand for increased accountability and transparency drove the rollout. Many departments are now hitting full stride with their BWC programs and some are experiencing challenges. Over the course of the last year-and-a-half, several major cities—including Atlanta, Austin, Chicago and Minneapolis—have conducted BWC program audits (or had audits conducted for them) that have shown significant levels of noncompliance with basic policies for when and how BWCs are used.

Unfortunately, in some cases, the audits followed a critical incident where video was not available because officers did not follow the BWC usage policy. There is a significant lesson here: Be proactive. Don’t wait until you have a high-profile incident to find out that your officers are not adhering to BWC policies. It is unlikely that the public will accept responses such as, “We had a policy, but we didn’t know that the cameras weren’t being used properly.”

Audits and Compliance Reviews – What They Are and Why They Are Necessary

Within the context of BWCs, a program audit should formally examine and evaluate internal policies, procedures, and operations related to BWCs. An audit is much more than a cursory review or spot check. It is a structured, in-depth look conducted at an agency level by personnel who are trained in audit processes.[1] The purpose of the audit is to closely examine all aspects of a BWC program (e.g., camera training, organizational awareness and understanding, activation and use, recurring supervisory compliance checks, integration with criminal justice stakeholders) to ensure they are being conducted properly and effectively.

While the word audit generally has a negative connotation, agencies should not consider audits an encumbrance, as they can be quite beneficial. An audit does not simply try to find fault or someone to blame. Rather, agencies should view an audit, especially a proactive one, as an opportunity to identify gaps and address them before problems arise, and to identify good practices to sustain. Audits maximize the utility of the BWCs for the agency and the community, which thereby maximizes the agency’s return on investment in the BWC technology. Those are significant benefits.

BWC user compliance reviews check for the existence and content of BWC videos to determine whether officers are using the cameras in compliance with policy. While audits are typically conducted periodically at an agency level, compliance reviews should be ongoing and take place at a supervisory level or, in the case of larger agencies, by a unit dedicated to compliance review. BWC user compliance reviews, especially when coupled with BWC program audits, will ensure a healthy and defensible BWC program that can provide the accountability and transparency that the public and courts expect.

Good Policy is the Foundation of Effective Compliance Review

Perhaps the most important aspect of BWC user compliance reviews is ensuring that users are activating and operating their cameras in accordance with department policy. A BWC cannot provide investigative evidence if it is not recording. Unfortunately, failure to record an incident is often viewed by courts, prosecutors, and the public as intentional and possibly indicative of a desire to conceal inappropriate behavior. It is imperative that agency policy clearly state its expectations about when officers should use cameras, when cameras can and should be turned off, and the circumstances under which a video can be deleted. Policy must be concise, with no ambiguity about the critical points of camera activation and deactivation.[2]

A policy is stronger when it includes the purpose and frequency of BWC user compliance reviews and names the person or position responsible for conducting the review. Agencies should ensure that expectations set forth in policy are reasonable given agency staffing and personnel workloads. Agencies should be careful to not create a situation that is untenable and could result in not being able to execute plans for evaluating BWC users’ compliance with policy. A policy should also explain how supervisors choose videos for review. This process should be fair and defensible. Simply saying videos will be chosen for random review may leave too much room for interpretation and, if discipline becomes necessary, opens the door to allegations of an officer being unfairly targeted. The manner in which videos are selected for review will vary among agencies; some BWC manufacturers have a feature that aids in the random selection of the videos for review. Regardless, agencies should make sure the user compliance review process is clear and appropriate for the agency.

What Should be Reviewed

There is little debate among practitioners that BWC user compliance reviews should cover the fundamental procedures of proper camera activation, deactivation (e.g., not prematurely ending the video), and properly categorizing the video. However, many agencies also use the supervisory BWC video review process to look beyond compliance with BWC policy and examine officers’ compliance with all agency policies and procedures. Many agencies use this approach as a training opportunity. This is not without debate among practitioners, though, and can result in friction between officers and supervisors. Supervisors need to be able to identify the root cause of noncompliance and apply the appropriate responses. For example, an officer might need additional or modified training to improve their awareness and understanding of policy. Alternatively, if the noncompliance is based upon purposeful and repetitive disregard for policy, the supervisor might need to take administrative action or disciplinary measures.

However, as BWC programs evolve and agencies gain more experience, some best practices have emerged. To allay officers’ fears of supervisors using BWC video reviews to discover instances of an officer’s poor performance, many agencies ask supervisors to look for and highlight examples of exemplary performance and use them as training examples. Many agencies refrain from disciplining officers based on video review, except in cases of egregious behavior. Instead, agencies use BWC review as a coaching approach to improve performance with a minimum criticism. In departments where supervisors routinely provide cover on calls, video review is emphasized as simply an extension of that supervisory responsibility.

Chief John Carli, of the Vacaville, California, Police Department, was quoted in the 2014 COPS/PERF publication Implementing a Body-Worn Camera Program as saying, “frame the cameras as a teaching tool, rather than a disciplinary measure, by encouraging supervisors to review footage with officers and provide constructive feedback.” He was a lieutenant at the agency when he made that comment; he still feels the same way as a chief. Asked recently about supervisory review, he said, “We have to promote a positive approach through supervision. If you weaponize the camera, there will be huge pushback from the officers.”

Finally, BWC user compliance reviews should include documentation of any identified issues with specific policy and procedure recommendations for improvement. Failing to do this can result in a situation where unacceptable actions are left unaddressed. This can be both detrimental to the program and an exacerbating factor in the event of a critical incident or litigation.

Conducting an Audit

As with BWC user compliance reviews, good policy is also the foundation of BWC program audits. Before initiating an audit, an agency should conduct a thorough, thoughtful review of its BWC policy. As noted previously, a strong policy includes specific rules on BWC use and video review. BWC policies should reference all BWC-related procedures, such as procedures to ensure the cameras are working and properly charged prior to use and procedures for responding to requests for BWC videos from the public.

An ideal BWC program audit should review the procedures outlined in the BWC policy. For example, given the policy basics outlined above, an audit would ensure user compliance reviews are taking place, confirm the proper (authorized) personnel are conducting the reviews, and ensure appropriate follow-up is taking place (e.g., documenting and correcting deficiencies). At the bare minimum, an audit should look at the compliance processes and supporting documentation to ensure that officers are adhering to the agency’s BWC compliance policy and procedures. Audits can also evaluate whether officers are receiving adequate training, cameras are being maintained appropriately, and data are retained appropriately, along with other aspects of BWC programmatic activities. A policy that calls for very specific procedures will require a detailed audit.

Audits are only beneficial if they result in documented recommendations for improvement and agencies act on those recommendations. When the Scottsdale, Arizona, City Auditor conducted an audit of the police department’s BWC program, the findings and analysis section included recommended areas for improvement. Once the report was issued, the Chief of Police responded with a management action plan for each recommendation, a person responsible for executing each action, and a completion date for each action. The chief’s response became part of the published audit report.

Audits can be conducted periodically—annually or semiannually—unless an audit reveals a significant area of concern. In that case, it could be appropriate to consider greater frequency until the area of concern is addressed. If an audit identifies a significant level of noncompliance, the agency should not assume that noncompliance stems from intentional wrongdoing. Rather, auditors and the agency should also examine the underlying dynamics that lead to noncompliance. This root-cause examination may reveal a situation that contributes to the problem, such as inadequately trained employees or a poorly worded and easily misunderstood policy. The noncompliance could also be a manifestation of push-back by a labor or bargaining group. A properly conducted audit will help illuminate these issues, allowing for constructive dialogue and improvement.

Conclusion

An organization’s BWC program should include ongoing BWC user compliance reviews and a periodic agency-wide BWC program audit. These processes need not be burdensome and will become an integral part of an agency’s BWC program, serving to both mitigate risk and improve the agency’s overall operational capabilities. Do not wait until a problem that makes the nightly news arises. Do a thorough, proactive review of BWC policies and processes to examine how well they serve the community and the agency.


[1] Some agencies may use different terminology to describe a formal BWC program review (i.e., what we describe as an audit), and others may call BWC user compliance reviews (i.e., first-level/supervisor reviews of officer compliance with BWC policy) an audit. Some departments may only consider a BWC program review an audit if it is performed by an independent entity. While variation in terminology may be confusing, here we use the term audit to mean a more formal and systematic agency-level review of a BWC program by an independent or internal entity.

[2] Note, assistance in BWC policy development and review is available through the BJA Body-Worn Camera Training and Technical Assistance program.


Scot Haug is a 32-year-veteran of law enforcement, having worked in all areas of police operations and technology recently retiring as the Chief of Police of the Post Falls, Idaho Police Department. He is a graduate of the 201st FBI National Academy and has served as a Commissioner for Idaho POST, the agency responsible for all Idaho policing standards and training. Most recently he served as President of the Idaho Chiefs of Police Association. Scot is known for being an effective practitioner-technologist and has significant project management experience. He has served as a technology consultant to company’s such as Lockheed Martin, Booz|Allen|Hamilton and the International Chief’s of Police Association. His technology projects have been featured in Computer World magazine, CEO magazine, and the Harvard University Government Innovators Network. He is co-owner of the consulting firm, Public Safety Insight.


This project was supported by Grant No. 2015-DE-BX-K002 awarded by the Bureau of Justice Assistance. The Bureau of Justice Assistance is a component of the Department of Justice's Office of Justice Programs, which also includes the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the National Institute of Justice, the Office of Juvenile Justiceand Delinquency Prevention, the Office for Victims of Crime, and the SMART Office. Points of view or opinions in this document are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice