May 04, 2023
Police body cameras have become an essential tool for law enforcement agencies across the world. They provide a transparent and objective record of police interactions with the public, and this has led to increased trust and accountability between law enforcement officers and the communities they serve. However, starting a new body camera initiative within an agency that has not traditionally had such a program can be challenging. When my agency started the body camera program, there was a significant amount of pushback from existing officers. A number of officers felt like it was overreach and not necessary. Some felt like it was a slap in the face; the police administration and the City not trusting us. A small portion thought they were a great idea.
As officers started using body cameras more and more, we all started to recognize that one of the significant benefits of body cameras is their ability to prevent false complaints or accusations against police officers.
As a police officer myself, I know first hand that false complaints against police officers can cause significant damage to an officer's career and reputation. One single complaint, depending on its contents, can cause both professional and personal strife. An allegation can cause a temporary suspension, loss of income, and even demotions. In the past, without the benefit of having body camera technology, an investigation into a complaint from a civilian could last anywhere from days to weeks to even months. It could involve canvassing for witnesses, scheduling interviews, collecting evidence, and even searching for privately owned security camera footage. With a body camera program in effect, the officer and the agency can simply “go to the tape” within minutes and usually obtain a more full understanding of whether there is a basis for the complaint or not.
While not all complaints are cut and dry and easily resolved, a lot of them are, such as a demeanor complaint. A demeanor complaint can involve a citizen complaining that an officer used coarse language. Without body camera footage of the incident, this is a complicated matter, even if the complaint is minor. Who is the agency to believe? Who are the citizens to believe? This is often a “he said she said” issue that leaves everyone feeling disappointed, regardless of the outcome. The first time such a complaint was addressed in my agency and the administration was able to clear it within minutes of the citizen making the complaint, most officers who were previously unsure of the body camera program jumped on board.
Never before were we able to clear complaints so quickly.
What better way to determine what exactly was said and who exactly said it than to be able to replay it and even publish it for the world to see, if needed. The proof is in the video, and the video is unbiased. In that sense, body cameras can also help build the public trust and confidence that the public has in law enforcement agencies.
When looking at more significant complaints, if someone makes a claim that a police officer used excessive force, such as deadly force, during an arrest, the body camera footage can show what really happened. In many cases, the footage can clear the officer's name and demonstrate that they acted appropriately under the circumstances. It can be extremely difficult to obtain officer statements in the midst of such an event, and other eyewitness accounts can prove to be unreliable or not complete.
By utilizing a body camera, an independent person — or the public — can review the officer’s conduct in real time from the officer’s perspective and come to their own opinion. While this can still lead to different viewpoints, it can at least provide essential context to the situation and help dispel any misinformation about the event. This can prove important in both defending the officer criminally and civilly, but also the governing agency as well.
Moreover, the knowledge by the public that their actions are being recorded can also act as a deterrent to individuals who might be tempted to make false allegations. Knowing that there is objective evidence of their interaction with police can make people think twice before filing a complaint that they know is untrue.
In one case that I can recall, a man accused a fellow officer of using discriminatory language against him during a traffic stop. After receiving a traffic ticket, the individual was upset and decided to come to the police station to lodge a complaint against the officer claiming that he used racial epithets throughout the encounter. While this would have normally necessitated an immediate suspension and tarnished the officer’s reputation — even if the complaint was false — the Sergeant taking the complaint was able to sit down with the citizen and review the body camera footage with him. After reviewing the entire video, the citizen immediately withdrew his complaint and claimed that he must have “heard wrong.”
As one can imagine, these few circumstances drastically improved officer “buy-in” of the body camera program and they are now a staple in a lot of departments. Having the ability to enhance public safety and promote justice in law enforcement with such a simple and effective tool has been proven successful time and time again.