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Best practices for implementing a body-worn camera program

Check out these lessons learned from 3 LEOs who’ve successfully launched a bodycam program in their agency


Sponsored by BodyWorn by Utility

By Laura Neitzel, Police1 BrandFocus Staff

The need for law enforcement to have evidence of police and citizen encounters has become increasingly important, especially amid calls for police reform and the increase of civil unrest over the past year, says Jason Dombkowski, former chief of police of West Lafayette Police Department in Indiana and director of law enforcement relations for BodyWorn by Utility.

As body-worn cameras become more ubiquitous, law enforcement agencies should consider advice from other agencies in implementing a program.
As body-worn cameras become more ubiquitous, law enforcement agencies should consider advice from other agencies in implementing a program. (BodyWorn by Utility)

West Lafayette PD became the first law enforcement agency in Indiana to deploy body-worn camera technology, in 2012. In the process, Dombkowski gained a comprehensive understanding of the challenges that come along with launching a body-worn camera program. He pulled together an accomplished panel of law enforcement professionals to discuss best practices for launching these critical tools. Here is their collective advice:

Start with a research model policy

There’s no need to reinvent the wheel. Both the International Association of Chiefs of Police and the Police Executive Research Forum have issued model policies that provided a good foundation for policies developed by South Bend Police Department in Indiana, says South Bend PD Chief Scott Ruszkowski.

Lt. Colby Dolly, a 20-year veteran of St. Louis County Police Department in Missouri, says his department looked at the IACP and PERF models and expanded their research to get the perspective of watchdog groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and citizen groups to understand what critiques they had.

“One thing I took away from that is that the privacy rights of citizens were paramount to these different groups as far as not recording certain victims of crimes,” said Dolly, ”so we incorporated all of those things into our policy.”

Involve the community

“Community buy-in and support is so important and key to the success of any police department. So making sure that we engaged in all segments of our community was important for us to start this,” said Christopher Bailey, assistant chief of police for the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department.

IMPD conducted surveys, both within the department and externally, to gauge sentiment and expectations around a bodycam program. They held several community forums before implementing the pilot program.

“We heard both support and concerns from community groups within the city,” said Bailey. “Once the policy was written, we took it to community groups again, and of course our FOP and many others, and made the policy available online so that the community could read that and provide feedback. Letting them give us feedback helped make the policy what it is right now.”

Ruszkowski agrees that getting input from city leaders, police union representatives, the board of safety and the community is critical to the success of a body camera program.

“None more important than the community input,” said Ruszkowski. “That should be a given in this day and age, especially.”

Establish clear rules

When and how to use the cameras should be the foundation of your policy. Officers need clear guidelines for when cameras should be recording – and when they should not – to minimize officer discretion.

IMPD’s policy outlines that officers should record every single interaction that they have with a citizen for law enforcement purposes, says Bailey.

“Any well-written policy will inform officers exactly when the cameras should be on and be equally specific when it’s turned off,” he said.

The IACP model policy allows for certain restrictions on recording in any location where individuals have a reasonable expectation of privacy, such as a restroom or locker room. In addition, Bailey says, IMPD has an agreement with its hospital partners that if there’s evidentiary value in recording, then the officer will, but because hospitals have to follow the HIPAA guidelines, it’s not always required in that setting.

It can be a fine line between respecting the privacy of citizens, especially certain victims of crime, while also making sure to fulfill law enforcement objectives.

“You have to be very clear about your policies and what the expectations are of the officers,” said Dolly. “Officers want to know exactly what it is in very concrete terms. What do we have to do? What is it that’s expected of me?”

Use technology to comply with policy

Body camera technology like BodyWorn by Utility can be programmed to comply with department policy and help take the burden off the individual officer.

“The priorities should be tactical safety for everyone involved,” said Ruszkowski, “not whether something turned on or didn’t turn on, or whether it’s recording.” Technology should help, not hinder, and one of the fundamental philosophies of Utility is to never ask an officer to do something that technology can do for them, says Dombkowski. BodyWorn cameras feature patented automatic recording triggers that take the burden off the officers so they can focus on the task at hand.

Features that integrate with an agency’s computer-aided dispatch system allow the bodycam system to create geofencing so bodycams and in-car cameras automatically start recording within a policy-defined geographical area or action zone, alleviating the need for the officer to manually activate the cameras. Other triggers can be set to automatically start recording when the light bar is activated, the vehicle door is opened, a firearm is unholstered, or when an officer starts running or goes prone.

South Bend PD has automatic triggers set for every call so that when an officer gets within a quarter-mile of a call, no matter what direction, the body camera and in-car camera automatically start recording, including audio, says Ruszkowski.

The use of automatic triggers allows for accurate policy-based recording, and this approach has been endorsed by civil rights organizations such as the NAACP because of its potential to limit implicit bias, Dombkowski adds.

“It was so important for us to take as much of that decision-making off the hands of the officer and put it into the technology,” said Bailey. “I can’t say that it removes all implicit bias, but I know that having it automatically turn on is a good thing for our cops, and it’s a good thing for our community.”

Get buy-in from your officers

Implementing a bodycam system comes not only with community expectations but considerable anticipation – both positive and negative – from the officers who will be wearing them, so it’s essential to make them part of the process, too.

“It’s a huge financial commitment when you select a vendor and you go with your outfit, in our case 700 officers, with these cameras,” said Dolly. “So, the one thing I would say is you have to have the officers use the technology. The last thing you want is for them to not fully use the technology after you’ve committed all these resources to it. So, the question then is how you get them to do that.”

St. Louis County PD involved police association members during the procurement process and the RFP writing process and had them evaluate possible vendors and contribute as the policy was being written.

Bailey also suggests including representatives from your city’s IT department.

“Portions of the BodyWorn camera project are going to touch portions of the city’s information technology,” he said, “and having them at the table will make implementation much, much smoother.”

Definitely also include officers when evaluating and testing body camera systems from vendors.

“The officers, as we all know, they will turn on technology very quickly,” said Dolly. “If they find out that it’s not reliable or that it causes them a lot of work, they are not going to like that technology. So, you first of all, have to commit to good technology.”

Bailey has one overarching recommendation for law enforcement agencies considering a body-worn camera program:

“Slow down. That was the consistent message that we heard from departments all over the country, both large and small,” he said. “I recognize that’s not easy advice to heed, especially with the climate and the environment that we’re in. But you just cannot afford to mess this up. It has to be done right. It’s just too important. And that includes getting the needed input and buy-in from the community and the officers and selecting the right vendor for your community.”

Visit BodyWorn for more information or to watch the webinar on this topic.

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