May 09, 2023
As a police officer in southern New Jersey for more than 10 years, I responded to hundreds of domestic violence calls for service. Domestic violence is a serious issue that affects countless individuals worldwide.
In the United States, for example, some sources say one in four women and one in nine men experience severe physical violence from an intimate partner in their lifetime.
Domestic violence can take many forms, including physical, sexual, emotional, and financial abuse. Police officers are often the first responders in these situations, and they play a critical role in protecting victims and holding abusers accountable.
However, responding to domestic violence calls can be challenging and especially dangerous for officers. While training, experience, and knowledge can help officers handle these types of calls, the use of body cameras can also be a tremendously useful tool in assisting them with these types of cases.
When it comes to domestic violence cases, body cameras can be particularly useful for several reasons. First, the cameras can capture critical evidence that can be used to prosecute abusers. In many cases, victims of domestic violence are reluctant to testify in court, either because they fear retribution from their abuser or because they are emotionally traumatized by the experience. In such cases, video footage captured by body cameras can be used to build a case against the abuser, even if the victim is unwilling or unable to testify.
To that end and in my professional career, I witnessed a large number of victims initially report the assault to me on the day of the incident and then later refuse to testify against a suspect I had arrested. While the reasons for someone in that situation not wanting to testify can vary and even be understood in some circumstances, the system of justice in the United States does still require violators of the law to be held responsible in court.
In a case of domestic violence, the only eyewitness is oftentimes the victim. Years ago, this would result in a perpetrator of criminal violence to avoid any consequences of his or her actions. However, with the use of body cameras now becoming so popular, the victim’s statements on the day of the incident, as recorded by body cameras, are memorialized and can be used in court. In cases such as these, where the victim is unwilling to testify against the abuser but the prosecution still moves forward, it is essentially to have the body camera footage of what was said by whom in the heat of the moment of the police response. The end result usually included some type of therapy or anger management program for the perpetrator and/or the victim, which I think most would agree is a beneficial outcome.
Second, body cameras can help officers de-escalate volatile situations. Domestic violence calls can be some of the most dangerous and unpredictable situations that officers encounter.
While in the police academy in 2007, I was taught that domestic violence calls for service were dangerous because the nature of the disagreement is so intimate and personal. While you may be interviewing an alleged suspect, the victim may change their mind about wanting police assistance and then start attacking the police officer as well. Now, instead of just managing one suspect, there’s two.
Abusers may be armed, intoxicated, or emotionally unstable, and they may be prone to violence or erratic behavior. In such cases, officers must be able to respond calmly and professionally to avoid exacerbating the situation.
Body cameras can help officers do this by reminding them to remain calm and focused during the encounter. Knowing that their actions are being recorded can also serve as a deterrent for officers who might otherwise be prone to using excessive force or engaging in other inappropriate behavior.
Third, body cameras can help protect officers from false accusations of misconduct. Unfortunately, false accusations of police brutality or misconduct are not uncommon, and officers who respond to domestic violence calls may be particularly vulnerable to such allegations. Body cameras can provide a clear record of what happened during the encounter, which can be used to refute false accusations or misunderstandings.
This, in turn, can help protect officers and their agencies from unfounded disciplinary action or lawsuits.
Finally, body cameras can help promote transparency and accountability in law enforcement. Domestic violence cases are very emotionally charged and politically sensitive, and there is often a high level of scrutiny placed on the actions of responding officers.
Body cameras can provide an objective record of what happened during the encounter, which can help build trust between law enforcement and the community. This can be particularly important in cases where there are questions about whether officers acted appropriately or not.
Domestic violence is present across all populations in terms of wealth, race, sexual orientation, age, and other categories. As such, people from all walks of life can be involved. In cases where the perpetrator or victim are of public interest, such as a celebrity or politician, body cameras help ensure that everyone was treated fairly and equally, because the body camera footage can correlate that.
Of course, there are also challenges to using body cameras in domestic violence cases. One of the biggest challenges is privacy concerns. Domestic violence calls can be highly personal and intimate, and victims may not want their interactions with officers to be recorded.
To address this concern, many police departments have implemented policies that require these types of videos to be altered to obscure subjects’ identities. While not entirely ideal, this serves a dual purpose of both protecting everyone’s identities and also being able to exhibit the footage to the public or media in an act of transparency.