Police Body Cameras and Realistic Expectations

In the wake of recent riots around the nation, the Department of Justice is preparing to equip an additional 50,000 law enforcement officers with body-worn cameras.  As an officer who has been wearing a body camera for the last 18 months, I can testify that these cameras provide numerous benefits for both law enforcement and the public. However, body cameras come with limitations and drawbacks as well. And as more officers begin wearing these cameras, the public needs to know what to realistically expect.

While I am a big advocate of body cameras, it has become apparent to me that many in the general public completely misunderstand what body cameras will accomplish. With the “push” for body cameras coming in the wake of recent riots, the implication seems to be: if only more cops were wearing body cameras, then we wouldn’t have these controversial incidents, because the cameras would have captured all kinds of damning evidence against the officers. 

The reality is that body cameras will not drastically change policing. Officers are still going to be involved in deadly force encounters and other controversial incidents. While early research suggested that body cameras would reduce use of force incidents, more recent reporting has shown that body cameras have little impact on the number of use of force incidents, and in the majority of those incidents, the officers were cleared of any wrongdoing. In my own experience, body cameras have not changed how people act. When a person is intoxicated, high on drugs, suffering from mental illness, or just simply desperate to get away from the cops, he is not likely going to change his behavior due to an officer wearing a body camera.

Officer Safety

Body cameras can be very effective at capturing evidence, but they cannot capture everything. Cameras cannot see to the side and can only see what is in their field of view. And with many police incidents happening in low-light environments, such as darkness or poorly-lit dwellings, sometimes the incident is simply not visible when watching the recording.   

Most importantly, an officer must remember to turn on the camera before any incident can be recorded. When an officer is faced with the stress from a dangerous confrontation, he/she will get tunnel-vision and focus on the most immediate threats. This means there is a good chance he/she will forget to turn on his/her body camera, which is a perfectly normal reaction to stress. In fact, this has happened to me 3-4 times in the last year.

While officers can oftentimes predict situations when it will be desirable to have the camera turned on, there are also many occasions when it is simply not possible. Consider an officer who drives past a fight in progress and then immediately exits his patrol unit to break up the fight while also talking on the radio to communicate to dispatch and other officers. Or the officer who unexpectedly drives upon a theft in progress and instantly begins pursuing the suspect(s), while also trying to communicate his location, suspect description, etc. In both of these scenarios, and many others, the chances are slim that the officer will remember to turn on the body camera.  

Memory and Storage

It is also not feasible to have an officer’s camera constantly recording for an entire shift, which can be 8-12 hours. Even if it was, the majority of officers’ shifts are spent doing uneventful tasks such as report writing, driving to/from calls, checking in evidence, and a whole host of other things that the general public has neither the time nor interest in watching.

In addition, officers respond to a wide variety of separate, and completely unrelated, calls during their shift. Body camera recordings from these unrelated incidents must remain separated and placed in separate case files for prosecution purposes. As a result, officers need to have the capability to turn the cameras on or off when they want. This makes it much easier to keep recordings separated the way they need to be. 

Body camera technology is improving but some camera models still have limited storage capacity. Consequently, a camera can be completely full, but the officer may not have had the opportunity to download the recordings. And if the officer is involved in a critical incident with a “full” camera, then he will not be able to record anything.

Cameras Don’t Always Capture Reality

Overall, body cameras do a good job of capturing evidence and they can be excellent for prosecution. However, cameras can also distort the speed at which something appears to be occurring. In order to illustrate my point, let’s think about a sporting event. Most people are aware that when you watch a sporting event on TV, the speed at which it is happening appears slower than if you are watching it in-person. Similar types of distortions can happen with body cameras.

I’ve recently had two incidents with impaired drivers where I had my body camera activated. In both incidents I recognized the drivers as being under the influence of illegal drugs. However, when I watched my body camera recordings after the incidents, I noted that the indicators that I observed were not nearly as apparent on the recordings. 

As an officer, I am now faced with a dilemma. If I write in my report that I made certain observations of drug use, and a judge or jury cannot see that on my body camera recording, then it looks like I am lying on my report.  However, if I fail to include those observations in my report, I am not including every factor that led up to me arresting the person, and I am also making the case more difficult for a prosecutor.             

Body cameras do a good job of capturing incidents, but they do not interpret the incident, which only officers can do. In addition, cameras cannot always capture the same amount of detail that an officer is able to observe with his own eyes.

Unrealistic Expectations

In my opinion there are far more benefits to body cameras than there are drawbacks. However, for those who think that body cameras are going to uncover a whole world of crooked cops, nothing could be further from the truth. Even with every officer in the nation wearing a body camera, we will still be faced with the same realities -- crimes will still be committed by people who have little regard for the law, and officers will still lay their lives on the line in order to enforce the law. We, as a nation, need to keep our expectations realistic.

Matt Ernst is a law enforcement officer who is also an independent criminal justice and national security analyst.  Matt is his agency’s Krav Maga Force instructor, and also has specialized training in drug and terrorism interdiction, and recognizing drug-impaired drivers.  Matt can be reached at ernst1997@hotmail.com or follow him on Twitter @MattErnst1997