Body-Worn (Video) Evidence
Written by Steve Lovell   

DESPITE some privacy concerns by citizens, law enforcement agencies in major cities continue to roll out body-worn video (BWV) cameras for patrolmen. This is because studies on the effects of police BWV continue to show benefits for both police officers and the public.


(Photo courtesy of VIEVU)

One study of the Rialto, Calif. police department showed an 88% decline in complaints filed against officers, and a 60% decline in use-of-force (when force was used, it was twice as likely to involve an officer not wearing a camera).

Moreover, a study sponsored by the International Association of Chiefs of Police illustrates that 93% of police-misconduct cases where video was available resulted in the officer’s exoneration; 50% of complaints were immediately withdrawn when video evidence was used; and 94% of citizens supported the use of video. A recent report from the ACLU is also in favor of law enforcement agencies using wearable camera technology.

Recently, the Phoenix (Ariz.) Police Department partnered with the Arizona State University Center for Violence Prevention and Community Safety to evaluate the effectiveness of body-worn cameras for increasing police accountability, as a means of enhancing the effectiveness of the police response to domestic violence, and to record the interactions between officers and community members. The thrust of the program is to explore the evidentiary benefits of the video recordings (as a means of documenting statements, observations, and behaviors), as well as its potential for preventing and deterring unprofessional, illegal, and inappropriate behaviors by both the police and the public.

Currently, 56 officers in the Maryvale Precinct in West Phoenix are wearing cameras over the course of three daily shifts. For this program, Maryvale has deployed a secure, HD video camera about the size of a pager that is worn on the chest area of an officer’s uniform.

At the end of each shift, recordings are uploaded to a video server, with a police report number and the type of call entered for each report. Officers are trained on the BWV system (provided by the company VIEVU), which includes secure video-management software that prevents tampering, editing, or deletion of video evidence that is stored locally on a server, or in a cloud location for ongoing cases/trials. Video can also be securely integrated into existing video systems or other video-management platforms.

Evaluation

Commander Michael Kurtenbach of the Phoenix Police Department’s Maryvale Precinct explained the impetus for deploying BWV on its patrol officers:

“In March 2010, there was an unfortunate incident—a physical confrontation at a crime scene that occurred between a Phoenix city council member and a police officer. As a result of that confrontation, it became evident at that time there was a clear divide between the Phoenix police department and the community that we serve.”

In response to that event, David Cavazos, city manager at the time, commissioned a special Community Engagement and Outreach Task Force that spent about seven months developing strategies that were designed to enable the department to improve transparency, access, communication, and confidence between citizens and officers. The task force came back with 34 recommendations, including the need to develop a dash-cam pilot program for better transparency.

“We took a closer look and realized that, as a municipal law enforcement entity, the vast majority of our patrol work is done outside the car—thus, dash cams, with limited scope, wouldn’t fulfill the city council mandate for better transparency and trust earning,” explained Kurtenbach. “We needed to take that recommendation and push it a step further, and as such, were keen to evaluate the efficacy of on-officer, or body-worn video, cameras. Though, at the time, BWV was still early on in its technology, in 2011 we initiated a volunteer, 90-day program using 18 Taser AXON Pro BWV cameras—nine in the precinct where the incident occurred, nine in another precinct.”

During the 90-day trial, 2,300 camera activations were documented, and about 860 video hours were captured. Of those, videos were tied to criminal investigations in 62 cases. The department was truly intrigued by the potential evidentiary value of that video, whether or not those cases came to trial.

“While the cameras improved transparency and helped the department repair and gain trust, we also saw that the technology was helping our officers do their jobs significantly better, which was pretty amazing, and was an unintended benefit,” said Kurtenbach.

At the same time, while the original pilot program was nearing completion, the Bureau of Justice Assistance released a funding proposal under the Smart Policing Initiative that challenged local agencies to create innovative ways to address systemic crime issues in their respective communities.

“When we looked at the pilot and best-use cases, one of our biggest challenges is battling domestic violence, and we recognized an opportunity to take this technology, address the problem, and further build back trust,” said Kurtenbach.

To compete for the grant, the department partnered with the Arizona State University Center for Violence Prevention and Community Safety and ultimately received a $500,000 grant that ultimately brought BWV cameras to the Maryvale precinct.

Once the $500,000 grant funding was secured, a scope-of-work committee was created that included experts from the department’s technology bureau, the Forensic Imaging Unit, and other volunteer officers to ensure that the correct stakeholders would be part of the selection process.

Three vendors responded to the RFP. In addition to tactical performance, cameras were evaluated for simplicity. Key features that the committee sought included a one-click record button and a self-contained camera design free of cables or wiring.

The evaluation process put the cameras through vigorous testing. “Our tactical training unit developed two days of rigorous testing so we could evaluate the cameras in the field. We compared the cameras in real world situations such as traffic accidents where the driver bails and you are on foot. How does it compare in daytime versus nighttime? We also wanted to evaluate things such as: Does it pick up ambient light? Is it better than the human eye? How does it perform with a flashlight or overhead light? What does the camera pick up? We even took them out on our driving track within our tactical village setup.”


Body-worn cameras that clip directly to an officer's uniform, such as the LE2 from VIEVU, provide law enforcement agencies with an excellent method of collecting potential evidence every time an officer has an interaction with a member of the community. (Photo courtesy of VIEVU)

Deployment and Evidence Gathering

The Maryvale precinct is relatively small (15 square miles), broken down into two similarly sized squad areas, the 82 and 81 squads. For control purposes, the 82 Squad officers wear the cameras and the 81 Squad officers do not.

Official policy calls for officers and sergeants to wear the cameras on their chests only. The cameras can be adjusted once officers learn through experience the best place to position the camera on their chest for optimal recording. Cameras are out on the street with their assigned officer, every shift, every day of the week, every hour, with no gap in coverage.

In a typical scenario, an officer writing the original report has a camera, but there may be two additional officers on the scene who are also wearing cameras but may only write a supplemental report. This can create an issue for managing all of the footage captured, not just the footage from the officer who wrote the report.

“You would be hard pressed to find someone who does not see value in this. When you have 56 cameras on the street, that’s a lot of video to collect and manage, and does present its own unique set of challenges. For discovery purposes, we need to make every bit of video available to defense and prosecution, which requires comprehensive protocols, checks, and balances whereby all the video captured is made available to prosecution and defense, and also ensure that nothing slips through the cracks.”

Officers utilize software provided by the camera manufacturer that uses a FIPS 140-2 compliant digital signature process to prove that the video has not been altered, while additional security prevents unauthorized access if the camera is lost or stolen. Officers can use a mobile app to view and download video, which can then be wirelessly sent to headquarters.

Video management software is very helpful, but it is only as good as the information that is put into the system.

“The easy part is buying the cameras, training the officers, and deploying them out on the street,” said Kurtenbach. “The hard part about video evidence is managing the evidence created, and ensuring that every video is associated with the correct report and the criminal prosecution. You need express protocols in place to manage all the files you are generating.”

For Maryvale, the key is to have all downloaded video associated to a radio code and call—and the corresponding incident number in the appropriate field—along with the officer’s name and assigned camera. This makes searching for videos easier, and also provides context for the cases.

Maryvale worked closely with its city prosecutor to put in place mechanisms to ensure just that. Maryvale has two light duty officers who work in court liaison detail, whose job it is to prepare video for court cases, and make it available electronically every Monday to the appropriate cases flagged by the attorneys.

Security and encryption also play a significant role in whether or not an agency will enjoy a successful deployment.

“We had a situation where an officer was involved in a physical confrontation at a party. Subsequently, the camera was ripped off and they never found it. But because the video was encrypted, none of the evidence or footage was lost or taken by the party-goers,” said Kurtenbach.

As the program moves forward, discoveries or corrections are made, such as in situations where the camera cannot be removed from the scene—specifically, in cases of deadly use of force against an officer. The Phoenix Police Department created a protocol that states the officer is evidence and is not to be removed from the scene. This means the camera must stay on the body. Footage must then be viewed in the field via a mobile device that accesses the BWV-management software and cloud files.

Maryvale is finding that BWV can help its officers across myriad situations, such as these three cases that come to mind for Kurtenbach:

  • Case 1: May 2013—A physical encounter occurred between an officer and a citizen. Following the encounter, the citizen made claims of racial profiling and police brutality. Footage showed that nothing of the sort occurred. When an officer misconduct issue arises, it is a big deal, so being able to quickly clear it up with BWV proved a major advantage
  • Case 2: July 2013—An officer responded to call of a deranged man who got out of his car in the middle of the road and assaulted someone. The video showed that the officer did not use force, but instead immediately recognized a drug-fueled craze and asked for fire department and ambulance assistance. The suspect later died while in custody. Especially with in-custody death investigations, misconduct claims can be made; but in this case, video showed the officers took all the right steps, had no liability, and no lawsuit was filed.
  • Case 3: August 2013—An officer responded to burglary in progress, but the subject fled the primary residence to another occupied residence, and hid in the attic. Officers set up a perimeter while the subject claimed to be armed. The subject set the attic on fire. Six separate video-footage feeds showed the flames accelerated very quickly. The house burned down, the suspect died despite evacuation efforts, and video footage showed that the officers did everything possible to stop it.

“The public has been mostly very receptive,” said Kurtenbach. “They accept that they are on video when they are at the supermarket or the gas station. They don’t necessarily like it—but they understand and appreciate its benefits.”

About the Author

This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it retired from the Oakland (Calif.) Police Department with the rank of Sergeant after 20 years of experience as a patrol officer, motor officer, SWAT member, criminal investigator, and academy instructor. As president of VIEVU, Lovell’s focus is to provide innovative tools that support law enforcement professionals with their efforts in solving crime, gathering data, and increasing safety for officers and the community.


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