Body-Worn Cameras – Understanding the Union Perspective

Sean Smoot, Police Union Attorney and law enforcement subject expert

Introduction

As the implementation of Body-Worn Cameras (BWCs) continues to expand to police agencies across the country, officers are increasingly accepting and, in many cases, demanding the cameras.[1] Police recognize that BWC technology is here to stay, and the majority of communities expect their police departments to adopt them. Still, officers, agencies, and police unions do not uniformly embrace BWCs. Challenges and obstacles remain. This In View Commentary discusses the importance of collaborating with your union regarding BWC implementation. Two BWC subject experts from different backgrounds—a current attorney who represents police unions and an executive assistant chief who regularly negotiates with his police union—provide their perspectives.

This In View Commentary accompanies the recently released Establishing Officer Buy-In In View Commentary.

A Police Union Advocate’s Perspective

Many in the law enforcement community have advocated for using BWC technology for several years. That is not to say that implementing BWC programs does not also raise legitimate concerns for officers and the unions that represent them. Officers express concern that BWCs could be used to invade their personal privacy or that recordings will be used (or maliciously abused) by supervisors or others intent on unfairly analyzing officer conduct. These concerns generally relate to officers’ perceptions regarding internal procedural justice—more specifically, they relate to whether or not officers feel they are being treated fairly by their departments. Accordingly, it is essential that unions be included in the process of developing BWC policies and procedures so that BWC programs can provide optimal benefit for the public, the employing agency, and the officers who use BWCs.

Though unions have concerns regarding BWCs, most unions also recognize that BWCs provide added layers of protection and accountability for officers. They protect officers from false claims when the alleged behavior is captured (or, more frequently, its absence is captured) by BWC video. Several research studies have found significant reductions in complaints against officers within months of a department implementing BWC technology.[2],[3],[4] Some departments have seen more than an 80 percent reduction within a year.[5] These reductions have a variety of causes, but a common one is the withdrawal of false or erroneous allegations. At many departments using this technology, individuals who have made a complaint have withdrawn that complaint after viewing BWC video of the event which shows that the alleged behavior did not occur.

We know intuitively that cameras have positive effects. Science now supports this intuitive knowledge. Several studies have documented sizeable reductions in use of force incidents, including studies completed with the Rialto, California, Police Department; the Las Vegas, Nevada, Metropolitan Police Department; and the Orlando, Florida, Police Department.[6] A recent summary of BWC studies examining the BWC use of force question shows that 11 of the 19 studies reported statistically significant or substantial reductions in use of force incidents following BWC deployment.[7]  

There are other benefits of police using BWCs. Situations often de-escalate rather than escalate when cameras are present. In addition, BWCs can be extremely powerful law enforcement tools. The evidentiary value of video is extremely high. Video evidence has become the predominant evidence in Driving Under the Influence (DUI) and reckless driving cases. This trend will spread into other types of cases too. Police credit BWCs with improvements in domestic violence processing and prosecutions—cases that were previously very difficult to pursue.[8] 

BWCs can introduce savings in money and time. For example, the BWC study in Las Vegas found that BWCs reduced both the time and costs required to resolve cases involving complaints against officers.[9] They can also increase the quality of life for officers who can spend off-duty time resting and with family rather than waiting to testify in court. For instance, in Fort Collins, Colorado there was a 24 percent reduction in court overtime due to pleas bargains in the first year of adopting body-worn cameras (Fort Collins, Colorado Police Services study).[10]

BWC use means an increase in the potential for capturing evidence that is often lost, destroyed, or simply not considered (as sometimes happens when emergency medical assistance takes priority over scene preservation). But there is also some danger that complainants and the community—such as victims and jurors—will have unrealistic expectations (e.g., if there is no video, then it didn't happen), similar to the expectations created by the “CSI effect.”[11] Additionally, inaccurate presumptions can cast doubt upon an officer’s credibility. Agencies should work with their unions from the very start of the BWC planning process, taking these potential benefits into consideration, to address potential concerns and to collaboratively design their BWC programs.   

Agency Spotlight: Collaboration with the Union to Enhance BWC Implementation

Michael J. Kurtenbach, Executive Assistant Chief, Phoenix Police Department

The Phoenix, Arizona, Police Department (PPD) was an early adopter of BWC technology, although the scope of the initial deployments was limited. The PPD conducted its first BWC pilot in 2011, which involved 18 cameras worn by first responder patrol officers among a force of 2,900. This program was voluntary, and participating officers were equally divided between two patrol precincts located on opposite ends of the city.

Policy was crafted to govern the deployment, but a verbal agreement was reached between the labor union and management that supervisors would not view video for the purpose of identifying policy violations without the initial filing of a citizen’s complaint. This agreement put participating officers’ concerns at ease, since participants had feared that supervisors would go on proverbial “fishing expeditions” to find policy violations absent a complaint. This agreement would, however, prove to be extremely problematic.

Shortly after this BWC pilot program ended, the PPD received an envelope containing a letter and a CD. The letter was written by the mother of a criminal defendant who acknowledged that her adult child had committed a crime for which he deserved to be punished, but she questioned the behavior of the arresting officer and asked if the department condoned such conduct. The accompanying CD contained BWC footage from her son’s arrest, and the actions of the officer were shocking. The officer’s behavior was so egregious that it led to an audit of all 90 days of this officer’s BWC video.

Although such an audit was in conflict with the aforementioned agreement, the officer’s actions on the initial video were so disturbing that PPD leadership felt compelled to view all of this officer’s video to determine whether this was an isolated incident or indicative of a pattern of behavior. The audit uncovered a pattern of behavior that was not consistent with the guiding principles of the PPD, and the employee was subsequently terminated. The union representing rank and file officers expressed outrage, as did many of the officers themselves, blaming the BWC for the termination and not the officer’s behavior.      

As all of this was occurring, the PPD, in partnership with Arizona State University (ASU), applied for and received funding from the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) under the Smart Policing Initiative (SPI) to jointly study the impact of BWC technology on crime, public and police accountability, and perceptions of legitimacy, trust, and satisfaction with the police. The study involved the deployment of 56 BWCs to be worn by officers and sergeants in the Maryvale Precinct located in West Phoenix. Not only did Assistant Chief Kurtenbach oversee the initial BWC pilot, he also served as the commander of the Maryvale Precinct at the time and was responsible for this rollout.

Whereas the initial deployment was voluntary, this one was not. To say that the BWCs were not well received would be a gross understatement. In fact, a very negative flyer regarding the impending BWC deployment was posted in the precinct briefing room, a number of officers submitted transfer requests, and the officer union made it known that it would fight any attempt to require officers to wear BWCs. The relationship between labor and management devolved to the point that, at its worst, civil discourse and any constructive dialogue regarding this subject was nonexistent. 

To find common ground, the Maryvale Precinct deployment was delayed until after a citywide patrol division rebid so that officers and sergeants could choose to bid into or away from wearing BWCs. Additionally, representatives from both the officer and supervisor unions, as well as several community members, assisted in drafting a reasonable revision of the BWC policy. Lastly, the implementation team worked diligently to dispel myths, allay fears, and highlight the benefits of wearing BWCs. The PPD shared videos of great and often heroic police work, and BWC wearers came to realize that their BWC was an invaluable tool that protects them from false claims of misconduct.

As we fast-forward to today, the PPD is deploying 2,000 BWCs so that every uniformed first responder officer and sergeant will soon wear the technology. Sworn labor union representatives sat as voting members on the Request for Proposal (RFP) committee that selected the PPD’s BWC vendor, and they provided substantive input on policy enhancements that were based upon best practices and lessons learned. Obstructionism has been replaced with partnership, and resistance to wearing a BWC is now isolated to a small number of individuals. Phoenix has evolved as a city and a department, and the vast majority of our employees now view their BWC as a vital piece of equipment, much to the delight of the community they are entrusted to serve. 

Executive Assistant Chief Michael Kurtenbach is a Phoenix native who has proudly served with the Phoenix Police Department for 20 years. Throughout his career, he has been a strong proponent of Community Based Policing and has remained steadfast in his commitment to problem solving and partnership building with the citizens of Phoenix. In 2011 he was promoted to Commander and served in various capacities, including overseeing the Training Bureau, Community Relations Bureau, and the Maryvale – Estrella Mountain Precinct. He was promoted to Assistant Chief in 2015 and was tasked with heading the Department’s Community Services Division. The Division was responsible for the development and implementation of effective community engagement and outreach programs, recruitment and hiring of both sworn and civilian staff, basic training for new recruits and advanced training for existing personnel, and all public information and social media for the Department. He was promoted to Executive Assistance Chief in November 2016 and is now responsible for overseeing the day-to-day operations of a Department comprised of over 4,000 sworn and civilian personnel.

Conclusion

It seems clear that police use of this technology will continue to grow.[12] In fact, it is becoming more and more common. Furthermore, as police (and general government) budgets continue to downsize, agencies are likely to become more and more reliant on BWCs and related technology for everything related to operation, supervision, and management. A comprehensive BWC policy is therefore essential to address a myriad of issues and is key to the successful use of this technology.

The benefits of BWCs for the police are becoming increasingly apparent. Whether you are a supervisor or a police union advocate, promoting and demonstrating these benefits to officers can be critically important not just for organizational transparency and officer accountability but also for training, demonstrating good work, and officer safety and wellness.


[1] Bureau of Justice Statistics. (2016). Body-Worn Cameras in Law Enforcement Agencies, 2016. Available at: http://www.bjs.gov/index.cfm?ty=pbdetail&iid=6426

[2] Perry, C. New upgrades on the way: Birmingham city councilors approve more technology upgrades for emergency systems. Available at: http://www.birminghamalcitycouncil.org/2015/11/06/new-upgrades-on-the-wa...

[3] Jennings, W.G., Lynch, M.D., & Fridell, L.A. (2015). Evaluating the impact of police officers body-worn cameras (BWCs) on response-to-resistance and serious external complaints: Evidence from the Orlando Police Department (OPD) experience utilizing randomized controlled experiment. Journal of Criminal Justice, 43(6), 480-486.

[4] Braga, A., Coldren, J.R., Sousa, W., Rodriguez, D., & Alper, O. (2017). The benefits of body-worn cameras: New findings from a randomized controlled trial at the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department. NIJ Award No.: 2013-IJ-CX-0016. Available at: https://www.bwctta.com/sites/default/files/Files/Resources/IRM-2017-U-016112-Final.pdf

[5] Sutherland, A., Ariel, B., Farrar, W., & De Anda, R. (2017). Post-experimental follow-ups-Fade-out versus persistence effects: The Rialto police body-worn camera experiment four years on. Journal of Criminal Justice, 53, 110-116.

[6] See footnotes 3, 4, and 5.

[7] White, M.D., Gaub, J.E., & Padilla, K.E. (2019). Impacts of BWCs on Use of Force: Directory of Outcomes. Available at: https://www.bwctta.com/resources/bwc-resources/impacts-bwcs-use-force-directory-outcomes

[8] Katz, C.M., Kurtenbach, M., Choate, D.E, & White, M.D. (2015). Phoenix, AZ, Smart Policing Initiative: Evaluating the Impact of Police Officer Body-Worn Cameras. CNA Corporation: Arlington, VA. Available at: http://www.strategiesforpolicinginnovation.com/sites/default/files/spotl...

[9] Braga, A., Coldren, J.R., Sousa, W., Rodriguez, D., & Alper, O. (2017). The benefits of body-worn cameras: New findings from a randomized controlled trial at the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department. NIJ Award No.: 2013-IJ-CX-0016. Available at: https://www.bwctta.com/sites/default/files/Files/Resources/IRM-2017-U-016112-Final.pdf

[10] Coltrain, N. (2015). Body camera data crushing Larimer DA. Coloradoan. Available at: https://www.coloradoan.com/story/news/2015/03/31/fort-collins-body-cameras-data-overwhelm-larimer-district-attorney/70730198/

[11] Alldredge, J. (2015). The CSI effect and its potential impact on juror decisions. Themis: Research Journal of Justice Studies and Forensic Science, 3(1).

[12] Coltrain, N. (2015). Body camera data crushing Larimer DA. Coloradoan. Available at: https://www.coloradoan.com/story/news/2015/03/31/fort-collins-body-cameras-data-overwhelm-larimer-district-attorney/70730198/


Sean Smoot is the Managing Principal Consultant of 21CP Solutions, LLC. He is a nationally recognized subject expert regarding police-related topics and speaks regularly at state, national, and international forums regarding community policing, public safety, and public employee labor issues. He currently serves as a member of the Cleveland and Baltimore City Police Department federal consent decree monitoring teams. In addition to his work related to 21CP Solutions, Mr. Smoot serves as Director and Chief Counsel for the Police Benevolent & Protective Association of Illinois (PB&PA) and the Police Benevolent Labor Committee (PBLC). In those capacities, he is responsible for administering the provision of legal services for over 7,500 legal defense plan participants and acts as the primary legislative advocate for the PB&PA. Mr. Smoot serves on the advisory committee for the National Law Enforcement Officers’ Rights Center and on Illinois’ Use of Force Advisory Committee, Police Pursuit Advisory Committee, Racial Profiling Advisory Committee, and the Task Force on Police Integrity. He holds a Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice from Illinois State University, a Juris Doctorate from Southern Illinois University School of Law, and certificates in police leadership from Harvard University.


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.

 
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