5 body-worn camera policy issues you need to address before procurement

From privacy to cybersecurity, law enforcement agencies must have their plans in place

It is surprisingly common for law enforcement agencies to procure body-worn cameras before developing policy. This happens for a number of reasons, but usually it occurs because most agencies do not have a comprehensive understanding of the limitations, capabilities or liabilities of BWCs until officers begin using them in the field.

It is essential to address BWC policy issues before going live to identify and mitigate any risks without the pressure of chasing a response when an issue surfaces.

BWC policy discussions must include agency leadership, officers, PIOs, the courts (prosecutors and possibly public defenders) and IT. The involvement of multiple representatives within the agency and with the courts is critical to the success of the BWC program once it is implemented. While there are a number of BWC policies to ascertain, here are five policy questions to ask, answer and document prior to sending officers out in the field. 

In this Jan. 15, 2014, file photo, a wired on-body police video camera is clipped to a Los Angeles Police officers glasses during a media demonstration in Los Angeles.
In this Jan. 15, 2014, file photo, a wired on-body police video camera is clipped to a Los Angeles Police officers glasses during a media demonstration in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes, File)

1. What privacy policies need to be in place before officers begin using BWCs?

There is an ongoing expectation from the public and the ACLU for law enforcement agencies to be transparent about their deployment of BWCs. A lot of agencies will issue a press release about their decision to procure and how they intend to deploy the BWCs in the field. But the need to understand the public's expectations and communicate transparency doesn’t stop there. Every agency must have a written privacy policy in place prior to BWC rollout.

2. How will the BWC program impact prosecutorial and defense resources?

Agencies need to recognize the training and policy impacts of sharing BWC evidence with prosecutors and defense attorneys. It is important to keep in mind that the prosecutor’s office and court personnel serve more than one municipality. With multiple agencies using BWCs in a given jurisdiction, coordination of digital evidence review and cases with the courts is critical.

When kicking off a new BWC project, invite individuals from the prosecutor’s office, and possibly the public defenders’ office, to attend meetings and weigh in on training and policy. Make sure to include cost considerations as an agenda item. One city paid close to $10,000 to have only 15 seconds of footage examined. There are numerous resource constraints and having discussions early on will minimize  program risks.

3. How quickly should BWC footage be released after an incident?

Public transparency is the term du jour, and given this, every agency must define what that means to them and the community they serve. 

In 2016, individuals demanded that the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department immediately release BWC footage of the fatal shooting of Keith Lamont Scott. The public’s outcry escalated into civil unrest, which received national media coverage. The department was under the spotlight for days as the chief delayed the release in order to get in contact with Scott’s family and allow investigators time to process the scene and evidence.

Other departments, like in New York City and Seattle, take a different approach to releasing BWC footage. Their policy is to release video the same day or within 24 hours of an incident, regardless of the circumstances. 

All agencies need to establish a policy regarding the release of BWC video before going live; be sure key court personnel are present during this discussion.

4. What cybersecurity plans are needed for digital evidence storage?

Cybersecurity is often overlooked by agencies, but it is imperative to have a cybersecurity plan in place, especially when dealing with digital evidence. Run through possible cyberattack scenarios with IT personnel and your PIO. Mapping out a strategy for cyberattack prevention, response and recovery on the front end is vital. Even if your digital evidence management is outsourced, your agency may still have to respond to the public (and city management) when a data breach occurs.

5. Should the agency’s BWC policy be publicly accessible?

Some law enforcement agencies share their policies publicly and some do not. For example, the Baltimore County Police Department posts their policy online.  One factor of whether or not to publicly post is that it may be a condition of federal grant funding or it may be a directive from the city manager. Create a business case that details why it’s publicly shared or why it isn’t because it’s likely a question that you’ll be asked.

All agencies need to develop BWC policy before going live. The policy must be reviewed and updated on a regular basis as issues are identified or legislation mandates change. In order for the policy to be accurate, effective and safeguard the agency and its officers, the correct representatives need to be included in the development of each layer – from privacy and the release of footage to cybersecurity and public accessibility.

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