Advice on Body-Worn Cameras, Part 3

Transparency has become a “hot topic” with the news media, social media, communities, and police departments, federal and state legislatures addressing the issue. One consideration of transparency is, of course, cost. There are many hidden and unconsidered costs that are not evident during a casual examination of the issue.

What seems, to many, to be a simple matter of purchasing a camera and handing them out becomes a logistical nightmare of storage, management and reoccurring costs. When the need for training and request fulfillments is factored in, these ongoing costs will become a permanent budget item.  

Another aspect of the rush for body-worn cameras that is often not discussed is whether or not they will actually produce the documentation the public and press believe they will produce. All too often, it is believed that if an officer had been wearing a body-worn camera, the entire incident would be documented in a clarity that would provide definitive evidence of the encounter. 

Often, it is the encounter that involves the use of force that will be requested. Many persons do not understand some of the concepts and principles involving use of force that are taught and used by police, guided by statutory and case law. For example, the concept that police should ‘shoot the subject in the leg’ is popularized in the movies and by ‘talking heads’ on the news. 

However, it is not what is taught or believed to be the best practice.

All too often, existing video shown by the commercial media or in social media is often edited in a manner that it does not show the context of a situation. Eugene P. Ramirez wrote in A Report on Body-Worn Cameras

(2014): “The video itself will not tell the whole story of what took place, just a snippet of what occurred. There must still be an investigation as to what the officers believed and what other facts surround an incident. Wholesale reliance on a video will not do justice to anyone without a full investigation.”

One of the common areas of misunderstanding is what the courts have held in the past and apply today about use of force. The United States Supreme Court, in Graham v. Connor, established that when police officers were engaged in situations where the use of force is necessary to affect an arrest or to protect an officer’s life or that of another, the police officer must act as other reasonable officers would have acted in a similar, tense, and rapidly evolving situation. The totality of the circumstances—not just a snippet of a video or that of a witness—is what the court will consider. 

The courts look at the severity of the alleged crime; whether the suspect poses an immediate threat to the safety of the officers or others; whether the suspect is actively resisting arrest or attempting to evade arrest by escaping; what would a ‘reasonable’ officer consider in deciding if a subject poses an immediate threat to the safety of the officer(s) and/or others? The considerations are many, i.e., number of subjects, number of officers, weapons present, lighting, injuries, fitness, prior knowledge.

However, if only the video from a body-worn camera is considered—as often is the case in the news or social media—the totality of the encounter is not considered. 

While the public and the press may believe the body-worn camera will provide a clear and definitive documentation of the encounter, there are many limitations that will not be conducive to providing a definitive record that is not open to interpretation or ‘spin.’



The decision to deploy body-worn cameras is probably more complicated than one might think. 

Beside the considerations of cost, training, management, storage and fulfillment of requests for the product, what are the considerations for issuing them to police? For full deployment, most would assume that body-worn cameras would be given to all officers. Would that include all beat officers? All plainclothes officers? All detectives? All administrative officers who could interact with the public?

A strategic deployment is another manner of equipping a department with body-worn cameras. This would be done to evaluate what activities by police would benefit the most by the use of them, such as high-risk activities and job functions where the use of force is more likely to occur. 

The decision process by the command staff to determine where the activities arise could be problematical by the very nature of police work. After all, an officer may have dozens of contacts a day, but rarely use force.



Perspective and View

The next operational challenge is understanding the point of view that the body-worn camera produces. A common mount for the body-worn camera is on the officer’s chest. This produces several challenges. For example, the lens view is not the same height as the officer’s view. The field of view is generally not the same as the human eye. The camera does not have the ability to shift right, left, up and down like the human eye does. The officer’s hands, arms or weapon may obscure the lens.

The lens may be blocked by the cover and/or concealment used by the officer. Other subjects, suspects, back-up officers, bystanders, etc. may be blocking the camera, while the officer may have a direct view of a threat. The camera may be moving and swinging as the officer walks, runs, or shift his/her body, producing a poor recording.

An alternative mounting method is the head mount. This position has the body worn camera more closely to the level of the officer’s eyes. However, is the angle of the field of view the same as the binocular vision of the officer? Because of the fixed nature of the lens, it will not document the view of the officer if he/she cuts or shifts his/her eyes to the right or left. 

In each case, the recording may not be optimal. There is one recent example of a body-worn camera recording of an officer driving a patrol car, while pursuing a suspect and receiving gunfire. The chest-mounted body-worn camera has excellent clarity, but does not pick up any of the view of the officer while driving, only the sounds. And the video is erratic, only reflecting the confusion of a deadly force encounter.

While body-worn cameras capture sound, it is not necessarily going to record what the officer hears. First, the officer often has a shoulder mike that is close to his/her ears and he/she may concentrate on those transmissions. Second, under high stress, officers often experience auditory exclusion. There may be sounds the body-worn camera detects, but the officer does not perceive them because of auditory and visual processing. 

The bottom line on the perspective and view of the body-worn camera is that it may record one view, but it is not the total or accurate evidence of the totality of the encounter. 



There are three manners in which the body-worn camera can be activated or used to record an encounter. These include manual activation, event-based activation, and continual or constant recording.

Manual activation relies totally on the officer to make the decision when to turn the body-worn camera on to record. 

Does he/she activate it on the approach? Or only when things escalate?


And how does the officer predict when the encounter is going to escalate into an argument, a use of force situation, or otherwise results in an issue that the command staff and/or the courts become involved? And, when do they turn off the camera? And what happens if they forget or do not have the opportunity to activate the camera?


Event-based activation is generally policy-driven. The department establishes an SOP directing the officer to begin recording when responding to or encounter specific type of incidents—armed subject, forcible felony, a traffic stop, etc. 

Continual or constant activation records officers’ actions from beginning of shift to end. While this will be good to document the officer’s actions and eliminates the problem of forgetting or not being able to activate the body worn camera because of rapidly evolving situations, there are a host of problems this method creates.

There are privacy considerations. Is it legal in your state to constantly record both video and sound of non-police encounters? Is it a one-party or two-party consent state? What does the officer do when he/she uses the restroom? Officers may make on-scene sidebar comments and discussions during their shift. 

What does the officer do when they have to take a call from a family member or friend about a sensitive issue, such as a medical exam treatment or report? How does the officer develop and collect information from a confidential informant? Officers may be discussing or drawing on-scene tactical planning. Can partners have to stop their casual conversations while getting to know and interact with each other?

What are your state laws about video and audio recording while responding to a call in a private residence or business? There are federal and state laws restricting dissemination of restricted information, such as the identification of a sexual assault victim, criminal histories, HIPPA information, etc. What about recording the NCIC return about criminal history, driver’s license, and vehicle registration information? What are the community concerns about ‘Big Brother’ and always being recorded?


Discovery and ‘Open Records’

In many states, the work product produced by the police is discoverable either by request or through court order. The public can generally obtain copies of police reports and other records by request. Are the digital recordings of a body-worn camera ‘open record?’ How will it be requested? Who will review it? 

How will portions of it be redacted or deleted, in accordance to statutory law or department policy? How will the department ensure the integrity of the recording as evidence? It could be that organizations such as Cop Watch will request all the officer’s videos and then edit it ‘out of context’ to pursue a partisan agenda and/or creating artificial problems.

Evolving technology allows for body-worn cameras that are compact, high-resolution, and durable. It is now up to agencies to adapt policies and procedures to guide their use in a manner that provides all involved with documentation that is as thorough and complete as possible, yet ensuring legal and privacy issues. It may be difficult at times to satisfy all aspects of transparency, but a thorough evaluation of the technology, social and community concerns, legal concerns, and management should make the goal attainable. 


Richard Garrison has 35+ years of law enforcement and training experience with federal, state and local LE agencies, with primary experience in investigations, homeland security, close protection and intelligence. He can be reached at

Published in Law and Order, Oct 2015

Rating : Not Yet Rated

Related Products



No Comments

Close ...