8 body camera concerns police and the public need to know

Body-worn cameras — like every other piece of equipment police officers use and carry — have certain limitations, and it is essential to educate the public on what they can and cannot do


Editor’s Note:

This feature is part of our 2016 Guide to Body-Worn Cameras, a supplement that brings a sharpened focus to some of the most challenging issues related to the use of body-worn cameras and digital video evidence. To read all of the articles included in the guide, click here.

The tendency to think that body-worn cameras are the end-all, be-all solution for police-citizen contacts is a flawed one. Body-worn cameras — like every other piece of police equipment — have certain limitations.

Yes, body-worn cameras are credited with increasing the number of successful prosecutions of subjects who attack police and successful defenses against false allegations of officer misconduct. And candidly, body-worn cameras being used today are strengthening relationships with the communities where they are deployed. But in order to reap the benefits of this technology, its users must also understand its limitations so that expectations can be set — both within an agency and externally.

Consider these eight areas of weakness and recommendations for remediation when necessary and/or possible.

1. Technology Breaks

Remind your citizens and officers alike that cameras aren’t indestructible, and that in the fray of an encounter that turns violent, the video recording may be compromised by mechanical or other failure. (Photo/iStock)
Remind your citizens and officers alike that cameras aren’t indestructible, and that in the fray of an encounter that turns violent, the video recording may be compromised by mechanical or other failure. (Photo/iStock)

Police work can be a contact sport, and sometimes during that contact, things get broken. Body cameras are no different. In a knock-down, drag-out fight, radios routinely get jettisoned from duty belts, and body cameras — some of which have fairly flexible mounting mechanisms — could easily go flying off into the darkness, returning footage of the bushes, not the bruises.

Remind your citizens and officers alike that cameras aren’t indestructible, and that in the fray of an encounter that turns violent, the video recording may be compromised by mechanical or other failure. This is something that needs to be communicated to the public before a problem begins, not after, so whenever possible, say things like, “As we review this incident, we are fortunate to see that the body-worn camera equipment did not fail or get broken, so we have the benefit of a video recording of what happened...”

2. Motor Skills Can be Compromised

During a high-stress encounter, an officer’s gross motor skills can be compromised, so pressing a small button — especially one he is relatively unfamiliar with because it’s new to his uniform — may not be a reasonable expectation. They may simply miss the activation switch or not operate it correctly under stress. The officer’s focus should rightly be on his safety and the safety of those around him — he likely won’t have time to look down to see if it’s activated.

Once cameras are added to your officers’ equipment, make sure they’re also added to your training regimen. Like every other part of training, the act of turning it on each time in training will become second-nature so that when the real incident takes place, recording isn’t another conscious step, but an automatic reaction. As with all tactics, this takes many hundred repetitions to create the neural pathways necessary for that automatic response to occur.

3. Evidence is Only Two Dimensions

Video footage of a police-citizen encounter is a two-dimensional rendition of a three-dimensional event. The human brain processes the movement of people and objects differently than does a digital recorder. People’s perception of what is happening ina given moment can be affected by physiological conditions such as tunnel vision and auditory exclusion — two affects that video isn’t going to have the ability to illustrate. This means an officer’s memory of the incident may not reflect the story the video tells.

This reinforces the need to write a detailed police report that describes everything the officer has experienced that may not have been caught on camera.

4. Cameras Don’t Have Memory Recall

The camera will see only what is happening in the encounter taking place in the moment, but the officer may have had multiple contacts with a subject — perhaps contacts during which the individual was resistive or combative. That experience may have given them insight into what the subject’s pre-attack indicators are — minute facial movements or other signs that they are about to assault the cop. The camera has no such database, and can draw no such conclusions.

When an officer makes a decision to use a certain tactic based on seeing a pre-attack indicator they’ve seen in a past interaction with a subject, that history with the subject should be included in their report.

5. Cameras Don’t Have Feelings

Similarly, when an officer contacts a subject physically, they can very often tell if the individual is going to be resistive simply by the tension in their muscles and their pulling away or pressing in against the contact. This physical connection may prompt the officer to preemptively use a force option to gain quick compliance, but to the camera’s eye it would look entirely unprovoked.

This, too, should be written as descriptively as possible in the police report. The better you describe your reasons for your decisions, the more prepared and confident you’ll be if and when your day in court comes.

6. Fields of View Differ

Even when the officer’s eyes and the camera’s lens are perfectly aligned, the camera and the cop are not “seeing” the same scene. Most cameras offer about a 125-degree field of view. Under optimal, normal stress, most people’s useful field of view (UFOV) — the area used to gather and process visual data — is 55 to 60 degrees. During heightened stress — when tunnel vision kicks in — the field of view can get considerably smaller than that 55 degrees. Officers involved in gunfights at close range often report that they “saw nothing but the barrel of the gun” and that it “looked as big as a beach ball.” This means that their useful field of view was probably just five degrees or less.

The presence of a single view doesn’t guarantee that all the “action” will be recorded. When there are two, three, or more cameras present, you have a higher probability of seeing what occurred, but there is also a higher probability that one camera will record one version of the truth while another camera records another.

7. Cameras Process Differently

In addition to not having full and complete field of view, cameras do not have the processing power of the human brain. Even at the fastest speeds, a camera cannot pick up on everything that is happening at the scene. Although video seems to be one fluid file, it is actually a series of single images or frames, with tiny pauses in between them. In other instances, the camera may pick up things the human brain might miss during an encounter. For instance, an officer intensely focused on one thing may not see something completely obvious to an observer viewing the video footage of the incident.

8. Lenses Can Get Obstructed

Oftentimes, body-worn cameras are mounted to the chest, usually in the center near the solar plexus. When an officer presents a firearm in the manner they were trained to do, the lens is blocked by the gun and the officer’s arms. The camera may capture what happened up to that point, but after that, it essentially becomes an audio recorder.

Further, during a physical confrontation, the bodies of the combatants may be so intertwined that the only “evidence” to be seen on the video is that a fight was happening, not what was happening in the fight.

Conclusion

The public — juries in particular — will need to be regularly reminded that officers’ actions are judged based on the objectively reasonable standard as set forth in Graham v. Connor. In that decision the Court stated that “[t]he ‘reasonableness’ of a particular use of force must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight.”

As body-worn camera footage is made available and viewed in court, consideration for what the officer was seeing, hearing, and experiencing at the time of the event is what’s important, not what the camera recorded. The camera simply cannot record the totality of the circumstances.

Body-worn cameras are indisputably the future of law enforcement — there will soon come a day when nearly every cop in America is wearing one. They will be a great addition to officers’ duty gear, and will help departments build stronger and more positive relationships with their citizens. However, while agencies deploy body-worn cameras, they must understand — and educate the public — about what this new technology can and cannot do. 

About the author

Doug Wyllie is Editor at Large for PoliceOne, providing police training content on a wide range of topics and trends affecting the law enforcement community. Doug is the 2014 Western Publishing Association "Maggie Award" winner for Best Regularly Featured Digital Edition Column, and has authored more than 1,000 articles and tactical tips. Doug hosts the PoliceOne Podcast, Policing Matters, and is the host for PoliceOne Video interviews. Doug is a member of International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association (ILEETA), an Associate Member of the California Peace Officers' Association (CPOA), and a member of the Public Safety Writers Association (PSWA).

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