PD POV

Officials look to improve public perception, reduce litigation with body-worn cameras
Author:
Publish date:
Image placeholder title

The battery pack of the Taser Axon Flex camera includes a button that activates the camera.

In 2012, South Florida’s West Palm Beach Police Department was at a video technology crossroads.

Its in-car camera program was at the end of its lifecycle — and it was going to cost almost $1 million to replace the equipment. The department began researching body camera technology, even visiting the Daytona Beach Police Department in central Florida to evaluate its on-officer video program.

West Palm Beach field tested two body-worn camera systems in early 2014 before it received budget approval of $815,000 in October 2014 for a five-year contract with Taser. In March, 50 officers — including patrol, traffic, and school-based personnel — were equipped with cameras.

The system did not go live, however, until Phase 2 launched on July 1, and the department doubled the number of officers equipped with body-worn cameras. By early 2016, 250 units will be deployed throughout the force.

Image placeholder title

Officer Wolfgang Brunet reviews body-worn video footage online at the station, but officers can also review footage in the field on their smart phones.

According to West Palm Beach Police Chief Bryan Kummerlen, in-car cameras capture less than 10 percent of the work most officers perform, while body-worn cameras can capture almost 100 percent of police activity. Although the body-worn cameras are expensive, they could save the department money by streamlining complaint investigations and reducing civil litigation against the department.

PERCEPTION VS. REALITY

To be blunt, it is not easy to be a cop these days. According to Kummerlen, trust and confidence in the police is historically low in economically challenged and minority communities. Plus, the public expects police to use technology to provide procedural transparency and unbiased evidence.

A March 2014 report from the Police Executive Research Forum (available at www.policeforum.org) supported by the U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Assistance, noted that violent crime rates have dropped by 48 percent since 1993, but public “trust and confidence” in the police has not increased. In the report, Tom Tyler, Ph.D., a professor of law and psychology at Yale Law School, argued the discrepancy suggests “police may not be capturing the potential gains of heightened professionalism and improved performance.”

How do you positively influence the public’s perception of a police department’s legitimacy and procedural justice? Kummerlen is hoping his new body-worn video camera program will help. He also expects it will reduce the number of complaints against officers and reduce the use of force by officers.

“It modifies behavior on both sides, because you are aware of what you say and what you do,” he said.

West Palm Beach’s new body-worn cameras offer a number of potential benefits, including providing a clear account of an incident from the officer’s perspective.

Image placeholder title

A Taser Axon Flex camera is on the shoulder of Officer David Burck.

“People rely more and more on video evidence,” said Kummerlen. “You’re being recorded all the time. The technology is out there. Now we have the officer’s point-of-view.”

Of course, body-worn cameras are not without their challenges. There are privacy concerns, cost and implementation issues, evidence management and the need to get employees to support the effort. So far, Kummerlen said his department’s implementation is moving very smoothly, and it was not difficult to “sell” his officers on the program.

“It’s something to get used to,” he said. “It’s almost a natural progression for our younger officers.”

THE TASER SOLUTION

Taser offers two on-officer camera options. Axon Body is a single-unit system with the color camera integrated into the battery pack. Axon Flex separates the two components, so the camera can be attached to sunglasses, shirt collar, shoulder strap, or a dozen other locations for a better angle of view. Both cameras feature low-light technology and a wide-angle lens.

West Palm Beach chose Axon Flex because of its multiple mounting options and integration with evidence.com, a cloud-based digital evidence management solution that the department has been using since 2011 for photos and other evidence. (Officers have also used Taser weapons for 15 years.) Video footage is automatically uploaded and the battery is charged when the officer returns the camera system to its docking station.

Kummerlen said the system provides “checks and balances” with complete audit trails as well as customized retention periods for various types of footage. Officers can review uploaded footage from a computer or smart phone, but they cannot alter or erase footage.

“Everything is accounted for,” Kummerlen said. “You want to be transparent.”

According to Taser, more than 3,500 agencies have purchased its body-worn camera — and in August, the company announced Axon Public Safety Canada, Inc., a new subsidiary to offer its camera and digital evidence management solution to Canadian law enforcement.

Joe Fiumara, professional services director for Taser, said the company’s solution provides “total digital evidence management.” Beyond mounting options, the Axon Flex provides full shift battery life and 30-second pre-event buffer. Plus, evidence.com integrates with the body-worn cameras, and can ingest, manage and share other digital evidence.

Image placeholder title

ACADEMIC INSIGHT

John Ortiz Smykla, Ph.D., director of the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, Fla., is leading a multi-year partnership study of West Palm Beach’s body-worn video initiative, which will add to the sparse research on the subject. According to Smykla, only 13 published pieces of academic literature, produced in three different countries using multiple methodologies, address body-worn video for law enforcement. As a result, he said the evidence across the board is “pretty inconclusive” regarding the effectiveness of body-worn video technologies.

A central part of Smykla’s research will be periodic officer interviews, which will address questions of privacy, ease of use, and other issues.

“At multiple points in time, we are surveying the police department’s officers about their attitudes on body cameras,” Smykla said. “The police department has been completely cooperative and is working very closely with me.”

Beyond officer interviews, the multi-faceted study will also include surveys from a random sample of citizens that will address opinions about police and the perceptions of body cameras. After the program has been active for some time, researchers will attempt to determine if body-worn cameras produce a better type of evidence.

Kummerlen advised other agencies to do their research when considering a body-worn camera solution. There are numerous vendors, so he encourages testing several products.

With Taser, West Palm Beach outsources its data collection and storage, but some agencies may prefer an internal solution. If so, it is important that the agency has the IT infrastructure to support it.

Kummerlen also noted there are long-term costs associated with adopting and maintaining body-worn cameras and the digital evidence they produce, and officer “buy-in” for the program is essential.

Mark J. Pescatore, Ph.D., is vice president of Pipeline Communications, a PR agency serving the professional video marketplace. Contact him at mark@pipecomm.com.

Related