August 16, 2023
Police body cameras have become a valuable tool for law enforcement agencies worldwide, providing transparency and accountability. While their primary purpose is to record interactions between officers and the public, the use of body cameras in undercover situations has garnered attention. By considering the unique circumstances of undercover work, one can assess how these devices can enhance investigative techniques, protect officers, and bolster public trust.
While I have never worked in undercover operations in my decades long police career, I have worked alongside undercover officers countless times. The nature of their work requires a level of covertness, sneakiness, and mystery, however, when it comes time to make an arrest or go to court, the evidence they garnered throughout their undercover operation must hold up to scrutiny.
Undercover officers often find themselves in high-risk situations, where backup may not be immediately available, and other officers may not know where they are. Oftentimes, general patrol officers or even neighboring agencies may not be aware of undercover officers working in their area because they are not in the group of individuals who “need to know” what is taking place. In undercover work, trying to keep things quiet and unassuming are of the utmost importance. In the case of an incident, the footage can aid in post-event analysis, helping agencies identify potential threats and improve safety protocols overall. In addition, the real time GPS functioning of a modern era body camera can also assist undercover officers, even if they are incapacitated and unable to make contact with dispatch or their partners.
Body camera footage from undercover operations can also serve as a valuable training resource. Supervisors and trainers can review the footage to assess an officer's performance, identify areas for improvement, and refine their techniques. This feedback loop strengthens the skills of undercover agents, leading to more effective operations for the entire department. In cases where very valuable lessons can be learned through the footage, this training may even extend across the county, state, or country to help other officers.
By employing body cameras, law enforcement agencies can enhance transparency and accountability in undercover operations, which is an area that the public doesn’t always have the greatest confidence in since the operations are often not publicized. The availability of recorded evidence helps build public trust, as it allows for independent verification of officer conduct and ensures adherence to established protocols. When the public can see undercover officers behaving properly (after an investigation has completed), they are more adept to trust the department in other areas, including undercover operations.
Undercover operations rely on officers blending seamlessly into their surroundings. The visibility of a body camera may jeopardize an officer's covert identity and compromise the success of the operation. Agencies must consider the size, placement, and camouflage of body cameras to minimize the risk of exposure. In my experience, body cameras are often reasonably sized and can be put into a “covert” mode that eliminates any lights or sounds coming from the device. In addition, body cameras are very portable and could be stored in a glove box, cargo pocket, or other secret area where it can wait to be deployed by the officer in situations where it will not risk the operation.
The use of body cameras in undercover operations raises concerns about privacy, especially when dealing with confidential informants or sensitive investigations. Agencies should establish clear guidelines on when and how body cameras should be activated, ensuring that protected identities and sensitive information are not compromised. To that end, tailored policies and training must exist so that agencies can establish specific practices and training programs focused on the use of body cameras in undercover operations. These guidelines should address activation procedures, privacy considerations, operational limitations, and legal implications.
Importantly, undercover officers should have the discretion to activate and deactivate body cameras when necessary to protect the identity of informants or maintain covert operations. Clear protocols must be established to ensure proper documentation while respecting the exigencies of undercover work. While, in a perfect world, an undercover could utilize a body camera for an entire operation, it is not feasible. Having the undercover officer able to deploy the body camera as much as possible without risking the overall mission is paramount.
In some cases, undercover operations may involve situations where the officer is able to surreptitiously use the body camera to record conversations with informants, suspects, or obtain video footage of criminal activity quickly and covertly.
In my experience with criminal trial proceedings, judges and juries want to see and hear as much physical evidence as possible. While some may believe an undercover officer’s testimony by itself, others may question the officer’s honesty or integrity. Having any amount of body camera footage to help bolster the evidence in a case and the testimony of an officer is crucial. In one criminal case I recall from my career, an undercover officer was accused of lying about the content of information about a suspect that was provided by an informant. While I knew the officer was telling the truth, the suspect was able to successfully posit the idea that the officer made it all up in court after the informant refused to testify and the suspect was found not guilty on several counts involving felony drug possession. Had the undercover officer had a body camera that recorded at least the audio portion of the informant’s statement, the case very likely would have gone another way.
While the use of police body cameras in undercover operations can present some challenges, when carefully managed and implemented, they can provide significant benefits. By leveraging body cameras, law enforcement agencies can enhance documentation, officer safety, training, transparency, and public trust. However, the unique nature of undercover work requires tailored policies, training, and technology solutions to ensure operational success while protecting the integrity and confidentiality of investigations. Striking the right balance between transparency, accountability, and covert operations will be crucial as agencies continue to harness the potential of body cameras in undercover work.