5 reasons why a police department needs an in-car video system

Police dash cams have assisted agencies across the country in developing community trust and enhancing officer safety


When an Aurora, Illinois, patrol officer pulled over a vehicle last month for running a stop sign, it only took seconds for the encounter to turn hostile — and just a handful of minutes more for it to threaten the officer's life.  

The irate passengers exited the sedan, verbally threatened the officer with violence and then proceeded to tackle him to the ground, pinning his head and back to the point where he could no longer breathe. 

Now the three family members are facing attempted first-degree murder charges after a grand jury reviewed evidence from the ordeal, including graphic dash cam video.

Ohio prosecutor Joe Deters explains a dash cam video during a news conference regarding the investigation into the shooting death of Cincinnati Police Department Officer Sonny Kim.
Ohio prosecutor Joe Deters explains a dash cam video during a news conference regarding the investigation into the shooting death of Cincinnati Police Department Officer Sonny Kim. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

Police in-car camera systems are prevalent in many police departments, and for good reason. Here are five reasons to install a video system in your police department’s vehicles: 

1. Dash cams enhance police officer safety

Even though, statistically speaking, assaults on officers during traffic stops are rare — a 2019 study reported in the Michigan Law Review cited a rate of one in every 6,959 stops — that doesn't mean officers shouldn't be prepared for the worst. Indeed, six officers were killed that same year by criminal acts committed during traffic stops.

Implementing an in-car video system, however, is a proven way to mitigate potential dangers. According to an IACP study on the use and impact of dash cams, roughly half of the more than 3,000 officers surveyed said that they had been able to de-escalate confrontational situations by explaining to drivers that the interaction was being recorded. Citizen responses to a separate survey corroborated this finding: Of the 900 citizens who took part in the study, 51% acknowledged that their behavior towards officers would change if they knew there was a camera involved.

2. Dash cams reduce police department liability

Prior to dash cam installation, what happened in a situation boiled down to the officer’s word against the subject’s word. Having undeniable evidence recorded by a dash cam can solidify what happened in a questionable event.

And as the IACP study also revealed, the vast majority of citizen complaints fail to stand up to video evidence — officers were exonerated a whopping 93% of the time when footage was available for review. Furthermore, in at least half of the instances studied, complaints were withdrawn after citizens learned the encounter had been recorded.

Detective Corporal Bryan DuBois of the Lubbock Police Department in Lubbock, Texas, says officers are also much more self-aware of their actions with the use of cameras. An officer is more likely to take their time to assess their approach to a situation.

3. Dash cams provide transparency for the community

For those departments who use dash cams every day, courts often request this footage as evidence. In addition, if the community is aware of the use of dash cams within their police department, it can help citizens better understand police situations. This also creates trust between the community and their local police department, as citizens often believe that if their police officers are being filmed, they will not hide anything.

Detective DuBois says video footage is an excellent way to show the public what events take place leading up to various situations. The ability to show the back story of an incident reveals much to the public and allows them to be more understanding toward officers’ actions.

What's more, the use of these cameras enjoys overwhelming citizen support. Ninety-four percent of the civilian respondents in the IACP study expressed approval.

4. Dash cam video evidence improves conviction rates

The use of dash cams has increased conviction rates for most cases. Officers may now collect any evidence of value and still have video as an additional piece of evidence for cases.

In some instances where there is no other evidence collected, the unit cam remains as a source of evidentiary value. In most cases, juries appreciate the ability to review dash cam footage so they have the clearest perception of the events in question. This may also provide a more solid account and, in turn, help the police officer win their case.

Indeed, 93% of prosecutors surveyed as part of the IACP study rated the use of this video evidence in court as successful or highly successful.

5. Dash cam videos can be used for police officer training

Each situation encountered and recorded may be used as a tool for training police academy recruits, new police officers and veteran cops.

Departments can take advantage of dash cam video to demonstrate good and bad police actions. By reviewing video footage police officers can learn from mistakes, as well as view positive behavior and successful police tactics.

Detective DuBois says video footage allows officers to assess the response to a specific situation and use it to make integral improvements in regard to officer safety. This type of review may also help police officers understand what could have been done to make a situation better.

Additionally, the ability to slow video frames down is an equally helpful teaching tool. DuBois says whether it is a use of force incident, or an uneventful traffic stop, viewing a recording in this can only enhance an officer’s knowledge and perspective.

Conclusion

As a whole, in-car video systems are also convenient. Most are equipped in such a way that once police officers are on their agency’s property, they can instantly upload their unit camera footage to the agency’s cloud. Numerous software systems are designed especially for this purpose.

Today's dash cameras are also incredibly sophisticated, with many offering not only full HD video, but also built-in license plate and facial recognition capabilities and even live streaming back to headquarters.

At the end of day, though, it all comes back to basics: Having valuable evidence such as video is one way for police officers to maintain integrity with the visuals to back up their actions.

Learn more: How to buy in-car camera systems (a Police1 guide)

This article, originally published January 2018, has been updated.

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