May 04, 2023
With the increasing public pressure and scrutiny on law enforcement, having accurate and detailed written police reports is essential. As a veteran police officer in the United States, I am keenly aware of national and local news coverage that can be critical of law enforcement responses to specific incidents and how important the police agency’s response to the incident can be.
One very useful way of earning public trust and showing transparency is the release of any body camera footage concerning such an incident. What can oftentimes be overlooked is the importance that written reports about the incidents are equally as important. Having officers being able to review their body camera footage can greatly assist them in writing their reports about an incident.
One of the key benefits of using body camera footage to write police reports is that it can provide an accurate and detailed account of the events that occurred during an interaction between an officer and a member of the public. Often police officers are required to write reports based on their recollection of events. However, memories can be fallible, and officers may not remember all of the details of an interaction. With body camera footage, officers have a reliable source of information that they can use to supplement their recollection of events.
Additionally, body camera footage can provide valuable context for police reports. When writing a report, it can be difficult to accurately convey the events that occurred. However, with body camera footage, officers can review the footage and use it to help them remember the details of the interaction. This can help to ensure that the report is accurate and complete, as officers on the scene are human and are only capable of remembering a limited amount of information at once.
In a similar fashion, if an incident is very stressful, has many moving parts, or is chaotic, the officer may be focused on the preservation of life, defending himself or another person, or otherwise controlling a scene. In my professional experience as a police officer of more than 10 years in New Jersey, I often found that complex scenes can be confusing in real-time, and being able to later go to my body-worn camera footage to help sort everything out in my mind was of a great benefit.
Specifically, I can remember responding to a call for a large physical fight occurring in the middle of a major intersection. Upon arrival, I located several empty vehicles parked in the travel lanes on the roadway, 10 to 15 individuals yelling and hitting one another, and two individuals running from the scene. An officer in that situation must tackle a number of challenging tasks: watch for moving traffic; determine if weapons are involved; stop the assaults; tend to the injured; arrest any suspects; apprehend the people running away; remove the subjects’ vehicles that are blocking traffic; and open the roadway to passing motorists.
As one can imagine, that can be very difficult to manage, let alone sit down and write an accurate report about later that day or week. However, once I was able to sort through the above mentioned tasks, and because I had body camera footage to review to assist me, I was able to visually walk back through my actions and the actions of others to write an accurate and detailed report with my memory refreshed.
Using body camera footage to write police reports can also help to reduce the potential for bias or inaccuracies in the report. When an officer is relying solely on their memory to write a report, there is a greater chance for subjective interpretations of events or accidental omissions of important details. By using body camera footage as a reference, officers can ensure that their reports are as unbiased and accurate as possible.
In addition, officers’ supervisors and even the public can compare the written reports to the body camera footage to ensure accountability.
Utilizing body-worn cameras can also save time and resources. In situations where there is a dispute about what occurred, officers may need to spend additional time investigating the incident in order to determine the truth. However, with body camera footage, officers can quickly review the footage and determine what actually occurred.
While not generally thought of as a “police report,” internal affairs documents are official police records. When used properly, an internal affairs investigator can receive a complaint from the public, interview the complainant and the officer, and review the body camera footage within a very short period of time and write an amazingly detailed report of his or her findings. Without such footage, the internal affairs investigator may have to interview multiple people multiple times to clarify statements or counter arguments made by the opposing party.
Moreover, the use of body camera footage can improve the overall quality of police reports. When officers have access to footage of an interaction, they are able to write more detailed, precise, and accurate reports. This can help to ensure that the report contains all of the necessary information, including important details that may have been missed without the footage, despite the officer observing it first hand and in real time.
Though there are segments of the population that are pushing to stop the ability of officers reviewing their body camera footage prior to writing a report, it is simply a matter of fact that no amount of report writing can alter the video record. Thus, having the video available to the officer only serves to improve the report writing process as a whole.