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Rapid Response: How the Baton Rouge OIS reveals limitations of body-worn cameras

It has been reported in these early stages that the cameras on the officers at the scene came off during the struggle — one of the drawbacks of those devices

What Happened: On Tuesday morning in Baton Rouge (La.), police officers responded to a “man with a gun” call outside of a convenience store. They approached a man fitting the description relayed by dispatch.

The man refused to comply with commands and was taken to the ground by one of the officers. Although details surrounding the shooting are still murky, at least one of the officers fired shots, fatally wounding the man. Both cops have been placed on administrative leave.

In viewing the cell phone video, these officers’ actions — judged based on the objectively reasonable standard as set forth in Graham v. Connor — appear to be completely justified. But we all know that’s not the end of the story. In fact, it’s really just the beginning.

Why it’s Significant: In addition to the predictable public protest and the call by the governor of Louisiana for a DOJ inquiry into the matter, there is one element of the incident which merits our examination. It has been reported in these early stages that the body-worn cameras (BWCs) on the officers at the scene came off during the struggle — one of the drawbacks of those devices. In light of the heightened public interest in shootings and other incidents captured on cameras worn by cops, it’s a matter that should be addressed.

Top Takeaways: Citizens are increasingly demanding that the video footage of officer contacts with citizens be as clear and complete as possible and sometimes — as happened in Baton Rouge — that is simply not being delivered in some cases. Officers should keep in mind — and communicate to their citizens — a couple of key points about BWCs.

1. Technology breaks. Police work can be a contact sport, and sometimes during that contact, things get broken. BWCs are no different. In a knock-down, drag-out fight, radios routinely get jettisoned from duty belts, and BWCs — some of which have fairly flexible mounting mechanisms — can easily go flying off into the darkness, returning footage of the bushes, not the bruises. Remind your citizens — and officers alike — that cameras aren’t indestructible, and that in the fray of an encounter that turns violent, the video recording may be compromised by mechanical or other failure.

2. Lenses can get obstructed. Oftentimes, BWCs are mounted to the chest, usually in the center near the solar plexus. When an officer presents a firearm in the manner they were trained to do, the lens is blocked by the gun and the officer’s arms. The camera may capture what happened up to that point, but after that, it essentially becomes an audio recorder. Further, during a physical confrontation, the bodies of the combatants may be so intertwined that the only “evidence” to be seen on the video is that a fight was happening, not what was happening in the fight.

3. Improved solutions are needed. BWCs have come a long way in a very short span of time — but the technology continues to evolve. We are not “there” yet in certain areas. Anyone who has worn one of these devices knows that advancements for mounting them to the officer can be made. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Capturing HD video of the underside of a car while a struggle takes place several feet away is not an entirely acceptable answer.

What’s Next: Clearly, this incident will continue to dominate headlines as more facts are revealed, both by an eager mainstream media and the ongoing internal (and DOJ) investigations. There may be strife — there will almost certainly be protests. Perhaps the footage from those two officers will be revelatory in the end — perhaps not.

Meanwhile, manufacturers of BWCs will continue to address issues such as cameras malfunctioning, being thrown from an officer’s uniform during an encounter with a violently resisting subject, and whatnot. Perhaps an inventive officer out there will come up with a “hack” to better secure these devices to the body in the interim. Regardless, this incident illustrates that BWCs — while very helpful in strengthening relationships with the communities where they are deployed — are still in need of improvements.

BWCs are indisputably the future of law enforcement — there will soon come a day when nearly every cop in America is wearing one. However, the tendency to think that BWCs are the end-all, be-all solution for police-citizen contacts is a flawed one. BWCs — like every other piece of police equipment — have certain limitations. We need to do a better job of educating the public we serve so they better understand that fact, even as the industry works out the kinks in the chain.

Doug Wyllie writes police training content on a wide range of topics and trends affecting the law enforcement community. Doug was a co-founder of the Policing Matters podcast and a longtime co-host of the program.