How to deploy a smart, successful BWC program

BWC implementation is multi-faceted with numerous potential stakeholders and multiple technology decisions to be made


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 drive to implement body-worn cameras (BWCs) is unlike anything seen in the history of policing. Typically, the rollout of law enforcement technology takes a more tempered approach as needs are identified, issues are addressed, and funding is justified. If anything, departments are usually frustrated by the extent of time it takes to obtain beneficial technology.

BWCs are a totally different animal and the impetus for implementation is being largely driven by external forces — those who either wish to exert a degree of influence over law enforcement or those in elected or appointed positions who are reacting to the demands of their constituencies. In other words, in many parts of the country, law enforcement isn’t asking for BWCs, they’re being told to implement them as soon as possible.

Unsurprisingly, many agencies are being caught off guard and are scrambling to catch up. BWC implementation is multi-faceted with numerous potential stakeholders and multiple technology decisions to be made. There are many areas for a misstep — make a wrong turn and you may find yourself losing a lot of time and energy, perhaps having to reset your program by starting over. Make no mistake, technology “doovers” can be costly in terms of operational capability, money and careers.

Open and candid dialogue accompanied by clear expectations and intent will go a long way towards ensuring a successful program. (Photo/iStock)
Open and candid dialogue accompanied by clear expectations and intent will go a long way towards ensuring a successful program. (Photo/iStock)

Regardless of where you are in the BWC journey, you’re well served to pause and objectively assess where you intend to go. For the sake of this article, we’ll start with the assumption that your agency wants to roll out the most effective and well-conceived program possible.

Immerse Yourself in the Issues

Before you jump in the deep end of the pool, get a good handle on the various issues surrounding BWCs and the basics of the equipment. There are a number of good resources available but probably the most comprehensive and unbiased is the Bureau of Justice Assistance National Body-Worn Toolkit. BJA has done a great job of objectively covering the issues, providing evolving resources and even linking to several sample policies from agencies across the country. Once you have a handle on equipment basics and what other agencies have experienced, begin developing a plan for your agency’s program.

You’ll need a program manager to oversee the effort so find a champion within your agency who understands both the potential benefits and pitfalls associated with rolling out BWCs. It is important to think in terms of how your agency’s primary mission can best be advanced with the technology. Remember, tech tools like BWCs should augment and improve your capabilities, not control or constrain them.

Identify Key Stakeholders

There’s much more to rolling out a BWC effort than simply buying and issuing hardware. One of the first major tasks will be identifying key stakeholders and seeking their input. This is probably the most important and sensitive part of your BWC rollout. This outreach effort should take place before cameras start rolling and involve multiple segments of the criminal justice community as well as representatives of the media, the public and civil liberties groups.

By proactively and effectively engaging these stakeholders, you’re much more likely to head off problems. If you’re conscientious and transparent in stakeholder engagement, you’re much more likely to be successful. Conversely, if you’re arbitrary, secretive, and dogmatic, you’re likely to be met with resistance and skepticism from both your agency personnel and many in the community.

There is not a specific checklist when identifying stakeholders in a BWC rollout. Communities vary immensely as does the level of trust and support for law enforcement. First, take a reading on what has taken place and the current climate in your region. Depending on where you are and the type of agency, the size and scope of your “region” will vary. It could mean your entire state all the way down to a portion of your county.

Regardless of what you consider to be your operational region, do your due diligence by looking at any existing or proposed programs. Has there been a competitive procurement process (required in many areas)? Has there been media attention and, if so, what’s been the tone of the coverage? Also consider the reaction of past technology rollouts (such as license plate readers) and consider those parties who raised questions or were impacted. This will give you a good starting point. Identify persons or groups with both an interest and a willingness to discuss the issues involved.

Be prepared to explain why your agency is embracing BWC technology and the benefits that BWC use can provide. Be prepared for tough questions about access, retention, and privacy. In some circumstances, it will be beneficial to meet with a group where other situations will be better served by meeting individually or with a small number of people. This is a time to be strategic.

Also essential to the stakeholder discussion are representatives from risk management, the city or county attorney and, perhaps most importantly, the IT folks. Take a moment to reflect on the variety of people involved and the level of engagement that may be necessary. It’s probably unrealistic to hope for complete and unlimited support. There will be naysayers. This is why you should thoroughly vet the issues ahead of time so that you are prepared. It also helps to learn from the experiences of others. If another jurisdiction in your area has rolled out a program, take a look at media and public reaction. Contact that agency’s program manager and learn everything you can. Find out where the landmines are likely to be and how they dealt (or wish they had dealt) with them.

The users are the most important part of the program but some agencies minimize this factor, instead choosing to impose a program without sufficiently engaging with their officers. Labor relationships and their level of influence vary significantly across the country. In some, it’s a non-issue. In others, nothing is going to happen until the representative labor group has signed off on the plan.

If you want a successful program, you’ll be wise to engage early and often. Most departments start with a small group of officers or a single division so that issues that evolve can be addressed while they are still manageable. An even better approach is to actively solicit (even recruit) specific volunteers who will be willing to collaboratively work through issues and provide meaningful feedback.

Remember that those who invest themselves in a program will have a sense of ownership and will want the program to succeed. They’ll be your best proponents and can serve as informal trainers when the full rollout begins.

Have a Purpose-Driven Policy

Understanding the intended purpose and the driving force behind your program will help identify priorities that need to be considered as you assemble stakeholders and develop your policy. Speaking of policy, you did intend to have a BWC policy in place before you put cameras in the field, didn’t you? For some, this may sound like a ridiculous question but for many, it’s a reality check. Policy should be considered the cornerstone of your program.

Think of policy development as being somewhat like developing a good recipe. You’ll need to figure out the key ingredients, determine when they should be mixed together, and then estimate how many folks you’re going to be serving. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Well, sometimes recipes — and policies — can be a bit complex and require adjustment.

Policy basics that need to be considered include, but are not limited to:

1. When and under what situations will cameras be utilized?
2. What are the primary and permitted uses of the video?
3. Will officer discretion be allowed or restricted?
4. Will notification of recording be required?
5. Who will have access to the video and how long will it be retained?
6. How will the security of the data be assured?

The BJA Toolkit, the International Association of Chiefs of Police and the Police Executive Research Forum have each provided model policies, all of which are highly recommended.

Educate the Public

Departments can gain additional benefit from their stakeholder involvement by listening to the concerns and questions put forth and then sharing those on a broader scale. Public expectations are likely to be quite high because of the high quality of today’s media presentations. Not surprisingly, raw police video will often be very different due to the challenging and unpredictable environment of law enforcement. Perspective will be two-dimensional and from one angle.

Audio may be difficult to understand or may not pick up slight but important noises such as a metallic sound when a driver suddenly reaches under his seat. Environmental factors such as heat and smell will be absent. Depending on how the camera is mounted, the view may be obstructed and, although a head mount will point in the general direction, a camera will not always be “looking” where an officer’s eyes are directed.

Consideration should be given to partnering with local media outlets to demonstrate how the cameras work, how they’re used, their limitations, and to provide discussion of the overall public safety benefits. Information on an agency’s BWC program and policy as well as a candid discussion of their operational limitations should be available on the department’s website.

Partner with Prosecutors

Those involved in the prosecution and handling of criminal cases should be part of your stakeholder group but there is more needed than simply seeking their input. BWCs will have a significant impact on the courts and prosecutors in your area. If multiple agencies are rolling them out, the challenges will be exponentially magnified.

Video has long played a key role in the effective prosecution of criminal cases but the proliferation of BWC devices and the resulting increase in video has presented some unique challenges. Prosecutors have an absolute duty to disclose potential evidence, both incriminating and exculpatory. A major incident involving multiple officers could easily result in hours of video, much of it overlapping but viewed from different angles and picking up different audio. If multiple agencies show up on a call, the problem is compounded.

A case could be seriously compromised if it’s discovered there is undeclared or undocumented video from an officer or from another agency that was not made available to the defense. This is something everyone needs to understand and document accordingly. Prosecutors will have to gear up by training and equipping staff to handle the video. Many have found they have to hire additional personnel as a result. Prosecutors will also need the ability to redact segments due to privacy issues unrelated to the criminal case or for other reasons. This is an area where you will be well served to determine expectations and process ahead of time.

Determine Access Parameters

Determining who has access to video evidence — and under what circumstances — is a complex issue and one that agencies have addressed in a variety of ways. In terms of public and media requests for BWC video, state and local laws may dictate a specific procedure. Accordingly, agencies should work collaboratively with their legal counsel.

This is a specialized and evolving area of the law that may have significant impact on your program so make sure you give it adequate consideration. If you’re in an area that requires some level of regular release of video with portions redacted, you should expect serious staffing impacts. It takes time to handle the request, locate the video, review it and redact any “sensitive” video or audio portions. In at least one state (Washington), the laws regarding video release are such that some agencies have deferred or severely limited BWC implementation specifically because of the impact that public and media requests would have on their staff.

Access considerations go well beyond public or media requests. What about using video for training purposes or performance review? Video can prove invaluable in building skills, especially during initial field training. However, if BWC video is used as an ongoing performance evaluation tool, labor representatives will likely express concern that the nature of police work is such that close monitoring of a targeted individual could result in unwarranted discipline.

Officers who feel like they’re continually being subjected to critical review often claim a higher level of device malfunction or experience increased operator error. Open and candid dialogue accompanied by clear expectations and intent will go a long way towards ensuring a successful program.

Given the ease of posting videos to the Internet, agencies should specifically prohibit personnel from accessing videos for their own use and from sharing, selling, distributing, or posting videos to the Web. This is a situation where a single incident could result in loss of public trust and possibly compromise an investigation. Policy should clearly state the prohibition and the certainty of sanction.

Plan for File Retention

This requires a combination of due diligence, planning, and strategic consideration. You need to determine if there are existing laws, regulations, or ordinances that may govern or mandate a minimum retention period for digital media evidence. Even the word “evidence” is a key consideration. Keep in mind that there is likely a difference between retaining BWC recordings that are actually evidence in a criminal investigation and BWC recordings of a pedestrian stop where no arrest has been made. These are the types of distinctions that need to be discussed, decisions made and then clear direction given to those responsible for maintaining/retaining the files. 

Do the math on the anticipated storage needs. If you’re using in-house storage, you’ll need to provision accordingly and provide for adequate backup (very, very important). Video takes a lot of space and the 24/7 environment of policing ensures there will be a steady flow of data. It goes without saying that the longer you keep it, the more storage you will need.

If you have an existing in-car video system, don’t make the mistake of assuming that you can simply double your storage needs. Most departments find that individual-officer BWCs result in a much greater volume of recorded data. Again, this is an area to check with another agency that is using a similar system and avoid surprises. If you are using vendor-hosted or cloud storage, there will be a fee involved for that storage.

Think strategically when you make decisions regarding retention. How best can your system meet the needs of your agency in terms of evidence, public interaction, training, etc.? And what will be the corresponding staffing impacts or benefits? For instance, if you establish in your policy that video of an evidentiary nature is not to be released and kept for the life of the case while other non-evidentiary video is to be deleted after 30 or 60 days, you will be dealing with fewer requests for public or media disclosure. Don’t forget, it’s important that your retention schema complies with any legislatively-imposed requirements.

Set a reasonable and appropriate retention period based on:

• Any legal requirements in your jurisdiction
• Operational and investigative needs
• Data storage capabilities along with related costs
• A reasonable balance of the previous areas in light of community expectations

Patiently Train and Deploy

Very few agencies try a single, department-wide roll out and for good reason: there are a lot of moving parts to a BWC program and it makes sense to start small, address issues as they come up, and expand the effort as lessons are learned and problems are resolved. The most effective approach is to start with a small pilot group of field officers.

Many agencies ask for volunteers because they want officers who are willing to conscientiously engage and provide meaningful feedback. There will be challenges and keeping the scale small and working with officers who are problem-solvers will go a long way towards moving your program forward. Once operational basics are ironed out, expand the program to a specific unit or group for a period of 60-90 days. Not only will this make your training more manageable, this will facilitate resolution of issues related to infrastructure like network storage or bandwidth limitations.

Training needs to incorporate more than just basic operation of the hardware. At a minimum, training should consist of an in-depth review of policy as well as equipment familiarization to include operational parameters and limitations. For instance, if your BWC units have an expected record time of six hours due to battery life, then you need officers to be aware of this so they can plan or monitor accordingly. Another important training consideration is the method and restrictions on accessing the recording and the method of storage or transfer. This will be unique to your system and your agency setup and should be outlined clearly in your policy. 

Most departments find that experienced officers are best equipped to instruct other officers on BWC utilization, so if you use the pilot approach, bring those pilot participants into a training role. Consider making them the primary point of contact for reporting issues and serving as liaisons to the program manager. If you’re fortunate enough to have a neighboring agency that has experience using the same system and setup, consider “borrowing” staff to ease the learning curve and take away some of the initial mystery.

Be patient with your personnel as the cameras hit the field. It will take a while for officers to have the mental awareness and primed thought process to initiate recording. Be prepared for those times when a recording was not obtained but the public expectation is that it should have been in operation. Encourage your officers to think ahead and consider activating the record function before an encounter begins or before arrival at a call. This approach will head off a lot of problems.

It is important to allow for growing pains as officers adapt to BWCs in the field. Allow time for officers to get used to the change. Many agencies have allowed a period of time where there is no discipline for failing to use the BWC. This can be a good way to mitigate negative sentiment and let officers develop the thought processes that will make the use of BWC part of their routine. Encourage feedback and address issues as they arise. Share success stories - what gets recognized tends to get repeated.

Conclusion

Body-worn cameras have the potential to objectively document the actions of an officer in the field. This can aid in criminal prosecution, help reduce or resolve complaints, and ultimately improve both community interaction and public safety. However, it will take commitment, planning, and ongoing effort to ensure a successful program. Study the issues, listen to your stakeholders, and adapt as lessons are learned.

Even the most well-thought-out implementation plan will hit some bumps. Don’t let these events derail your program. Adapt, improvise, and overcome.

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