In View: The Importance of BWCs from the Chief's Perspective

The Importance of Body-Worn Camera Training and Policy: Commentary from the Chief’s Perspective

Harold Medlock, Chief (ret.) Fayetteville, NC and BWC TTA Subject Matter Expert

In summer 2015, my department received a complaint from a citizen that she had been sexually assaulted by one of my officers while the officer cited her for larceny. The complainant would not come to police headquarters, but instead provided her account by phone. The Internal Affairs Commander began an investigation and, two hours later, I learned that the officer was one of three in our department who was field-testing and evaluating a body-worn camera (BWC), and that the entire incident had been captured on a BWC. The officer’s BWC footage was conclusive that no sexual assault—or any physical contact—occurred during the encounter. We invited the complainant to view the video footage; she declined, and we did not hear from her again. The case was closed, eliminating stress for the officer, who became a great ambassador for the BWC program.

While this video was not made public, the department used every opportunity to share the story internally and throughout the community during BWC community policy discussions. We used this and similar incidents experienced during the Test and Evaluation phase to validate and challenge much of our draft BWC policy.

Understanding the value of BWCs

During my department’s two-year research period, which included discussions with officers, other law enforcement leaders, and community groups in the city, I was often asked why BWCs are so important to me as Chief of Police. My responses centered on four fundamental benefits: 

1.  Improving trust and transparency with our community. Relying on unedited digital documentation of encounters between officers and our citizens allows me to be confident in responding to citizen concerns and/or address training or discipline issues.

2.  Improving the manner in which we interact with our citizens. BWCs help identify the areas in which we can help our officers improve communication, tactical, and de-escalation skills. 

3.  Allowing supervisors the ability to provide immediate evaluation and feedback to officers for every type of public interaction, not just those involving traffic stops recorded by a Digital Mobile Video Recorder (DMVR).

4.  Showing the good work our officers do every day. 

Creating a BWC policy

Departments should develop their BWC policies along industry and professional standards, while adhering to new or changing state statutes, and incorporating the concerns that are most important to the local community or jurisdiction, which can be complicated.

Every person or group who is (or can be) affected by BWC use should be included in the development of a BWC policy. Officers and supervisors, who will be most affected in the day-to-day operation and use of the devices, must have input. In addition, community members who are most concerned about police-civilian interaction should have an opportunity to review the draft policy and have input into its development. Finally, groups and organizations considered adversarial to the agency (or to law enforcement, in general) should also be included in the conversation.

Involving everyone promotes transparency and reduces or eliminates surprises and anger when policy is adopted and an incident occurs that brings a BWC video into question. Such inclusion also promotes the development of a balanced policy that attempts to meet competing goals and desires.

Implementing a BWC policy

A department’s BWC policy should be considered a “living document,” which requires frequent review due to rapid technological advances, best practices, issues identified in the law enforcement profession, changing expectations from the community, and new or changing legislation. Law enforcement leaders must be prepared to review BWC policy and affiliated training on at least an annual basis to ensure the policy is relevant to changing community expectations, legislation, and technology. 

Initial or rollout BWC training sessions will focus on the specific product and its mechanical requirements, to instruct officers in proper operation. These training sessions must allow time for open, honest conversation to dispel rumors and myths regarding the technology and the BWC policy. Officers will become stronger advocates for its use if the proper discussions regarding legislation, as well as department and community expectations, occur without fear of recrimination.  

In addition, while the idea may be considered radical, extending an open invitation to community members to attend training sessions will promote greater agency transparency and trust. 

Overcoming resistance to BWCs

While many view BWC use in law enforcement to be hurried or unnecessary, the last five decades have seen many such transitions (e.g., semi-automatic weapons, body armor, Mobile Data Terminals and laptops, pepper spray, collapsible batons, DMVRs, and vehicle-equipped citation printers) that were initially considered radical or hurriedly adapted. Despite early resistance, such advances have enhanced officer safety, while providing better service to communities.   

By involving the entire law enforcement agency, community groups, influential community leaders, and those who may be considered adversarial in the BWC test, evaluation, and policy development process, an agency can promote trust and transparency, reduce anxiety, and make BWC implementation a positive experience for everyone. Clear and thoughtful BWC policies provide excellent guidance to officers and help capture community expectations. 

Harold Medlock was the Chief of Police in Fayetteville, NC Police Department from 2013-2016. Prior to Fayetteville, Chief Medlock was Deputy Chief with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department. He is now serving as a TTA Lead and subject matter expert on the BWC TTA Team.

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.