A body camera with the right features and implementation can raise clearance rates and cut down on civilian complaints
Perhaps no tool of the trade more aptly symbolizes the modern era of policing than the body camera. Not only has adoption in the United States skyrocketed over the last several years, but as concern around police accountability has risen, so has the promise of an objective record of interactions between officers and civilians. From the first body camera trials in the United Kingdom to the current deployment of the technology today, much about the body camera has changed. Research has helped clarify exactly how body cameras can benefit police officers and the public, and different jurisdictions have legislated their own rules around how it can be used. If you’re considering the use of body cameras in your agency, this guide will tell you everything you need to know for a successful deployment.
The history of the body camera
Police body cameras first hit the streets in a 2005 pilot program conducted in the United Kingdom counties of Devon and Cornwall. These early tests showed promising results, with violent crime decreasing by 8% in the first 10 weeks of the program. Law enforcement in the United States started their own experiments in 2012, with three municipalities across Arizona and California implementing pilot programs and observing significant reductions in complaints against officers. But it wasn't until Missouri police officer Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown in 2014 that adoption saw a sharp increase. The Department of Justice began reimbursing departments that integrated body worn camera technology, aiding it in reaching 47% of all general-purpose law enforcement agencies by 2016.
The modern body camera should record clear, high-quality video that it can upload to encrypted and abundant cloud storage in real-time. The newly-released Axon Body 4 exemplifies these characteristics, with an expansive 160-degree field of view and a 5MP camera sensor that can feed footage directly to Axon Evidence. It also includes advanced features such as bi-directional communication for support in the moment and real-time capabilities like live maps, alerts, and streaming through Axon Respond. That helps dispatch send reinforcements as quickly as possible, keeping officers safe and supported. Click here to learn more about the Axon Body 4.
For more on the history and future of the body camera, read The history of police body cameras: from invention to innovation.
Pros and cons of body cameras
Equipping a body worn camera can provide an officer with several valuable benefits regardless of their posting. Although a comprehensive meta-analysis of the research to date indicates not every deployment achieves the same level of success, one consistent result is a significant reduction in the number of complaints filed against officers. A 2017 study found that body worn camera use also reduced the number of use-of-force reports among officers. This may be because officers equipped with body cameras display improved conduct with members of the public. At the same time, video evidence of incidents can discourage baseless complaints, freeing officers from unnecessary bureaucracy. If such a complaint is filed, the evidence captured by a body camera can exonerate the officer, as it did when a Texas State Trooper was falsely accused of sexual assault in 2018.
Deploying body cameras comes with some challenges. The upfront cost of investing in the technology can cause resource-pinched agencies to balk. Storing all the video captured on every officer's 12-hour shift can quickly eat up storage, raising costs further. Beyond budget, agencies must consider how to preserve the privacy of citizens when using body cameras. Fortunately, many of these concerns can be alleviated. A 2017 study by the National Criminal Justice Reference Service found the savings from fewer complaints against officers outweighed the cost of investing in body cameras, and many opportunities for body camera funding exist at the state and federal levels. Governments are also increasingly providing guide rails for privacy rules via legislation.
To learn more about the benefits and challenges of body cameras, read The pros and cons of police body cameras.
Body camera laws by state
Laws regarding the use of body cameras vary across jurisdictions, as each locality applies its unique mixture of familiarity with the technology, privacy concerns, and desire for accountability to the issue. These laws typically differ along three axes: body camera requirements, when cameras may be used, and how footage should be stored and shared.
Colorado's Enhance Law Enforcement Integrity Act is one of the most comprehensive attempts at legislation. This law mandates all law enforcement agencies within the state use body worn cameras with only minor exceptions. Those cameras must be active when responding to calls for service or "during any interaction with the public initiated by the peace officer when enforcing the law or investigation possible violations of the law." Officers can deactivate their cameras to avoid recording personal info unrelated to the case or during long breaks in incidents. Finally, recordings must be released to the public within 21 days of a misconduct complaint.
Many other states lack such an all-encompassing law. New York, for example, requires state police to wear body cameras at all times on patrol and record whenever they exit their vehicle to "interact with a person or situation," any use of force, and any search of persons or property. Recordings must be maintained for at least six months. But no rules are set for when recordings must be made public.
The safest way to design a body camera policy in accordance with local rules is to get in touch with the offices of your local or state representatives. They can provide resources and answers specific to your jurisdiction.
To learn more about how state laws governing body cameras diverge, read Understanding police body camera laws by state.
Key features to look for in body cameras
Most body cameras have the same goal: to consistently capture high-quality recordings of police actions. However, many incorporate different features in meeting those goals, and some incorporate those features more successfully than others. When selecting a body camera solution for your agency, here are some key features to consider:
High-quality video capture: Body camera footage is only as useful as it is clear. Look for cameras with wide fields of view, powerful sensors and a resolution of at least 720p.
Intuitive user interface: No matter how powerful a solution is, it becomes useless if operators can’t parse it. A body camera with an intuitive interface will often see more widespread and appropriate use than one with unlimited customization buried under overly complex controls.
Rugged build quality: Police officers face myriad physical challenges in the line of duty, from on-foot pursuits to hand-to-hand altercations. Their equipment must stand up to the rigors of service, and body cameras are no exception. Wing clip and Z-bracket mounts will keep them attached, and solid-state drives and compact design can improve their durability.
Airtight security: The footage recorded by body cameras frequently contains sensitive information. Safely storing that footage with encryption, user permissions, and audit trails can protect the agency from litigation and other negative repercussions.
High-performance battery: If a body camera battery fails, it can expose the officer and their agency to complaints and litigation. Downtime due to extended charging sessions can do the same. Body camera batteries should last the duration of a shift and charge as quickly as possible.
For more high-priority body camera features, read 11+ features to look for in body cameras for law enforcement.
How Axon can help
The Axon Body 4 is Axon’s most advanced body camera solution. It incorporates all of these critical features and more, such as location services, real-time footage upload and bi-directional communication. The Body 4 is designed to keep your agents safe no matter the challenge they’re facing. It also integrates seamlessly with the rest of the Axon ecosystem, including Axon Evidence and Axon Justice. To learn more about how Axon can aid your body camera implementation, from tools to policy support, get in touch today.