Bodycam mandates: Are you checking the box or seizing the opportunity?
As more states mandate body-worn and in-vehicle camera use as part of their reform efforts, considering smart technologies and being ready for potential funding opportunities can help address the evolving burden
Sponsored by BodyWorn by Utility
By Laura Neitzel, Police1 BrandFocus Staff
Nationwide calls for police reform have prompted several states to enact or advance legislation that mandates the police use of body-worn and in-vehicle cameras as part of broader efforts to increase police transparency and accountability.
In Colorado, Senate Bill 217 became law in June 2020, cementing into law some of the most comprehensive police reform measures in the country. Among other provisions like duty to intervene and restrictions on use of force, the state now requires that police officers activate either body-worn or dash-mounted cameras during any interaction with the public. Officers who fail to activate their camera or tamper with the footage could face disciplinary action and even criminal and civil charges and fines.
In July 2020, a similar law was enacted in New Mexico, requiring all law enforcement officers regardless of jurisdiction to wear and activate body-worn cameras when responding to a call for service. It also requires that the video recording be available for at least 120 days or longer.
More stringent policies with even bigger penalties for officers who fail to follow policy are on the horizon. In Maryland, pending legislation mandating the use of body cameras would not only penalize officers for not recording a call for service, but a lack of bodycam video would result in a prosecutor dropping a criminal case against the suspect. Pending legislation in Indiana includes a criminal penalty for police officers who do fail to activate or intentionally turn off a camera during a law enforcement encounter.
As laudable as police reform measures to implement the use of body-worn cameras and in-vehicle cameras are for increasing police accountability and transparency, mandates to do so often present considerable challenges to law enforcement agencies.
Challenges and opportunities
It’s understandable why many officers are dreading mandates, especially ones with penalties to the individual officer who fails to activate the bodycam.
Failure of an officer to activate their body camera during a high-risk encounter does not equate to nefarious intent, but unfortunately, that assumption has become the default. As every officer knows, body cameras can fall or be ripped off during an altercation with a suspect, or an officer can just simply be more occupied with saving a life (including their own) than with remembering to comply with every policy detail.
No police officer – and certainly no chief – ever wants to be in the position of admitting to public officials, the media or citizens’ groups that an officer failed to activate their bodycam during a high-profile encounter.
But making that footage available to investigators, prosecutors and others in a timely manner is also a challenge for many agencies who may rely on manual offloading and burning to disc storage, says Jason Dombkowski, a former police chief and director of law enforcement relations for BodyWorn by Utility.
“With some systems, that data is very vulnerable from when it’s on the officer's body camera to the time that it’s docked,” he said. “If the camera is lost, if it’s damaged, that video data is also lost or damaged forever.”
Today’s smart body-worn camera and in-vehicle camera systems can alleviate those fears by taking the responsibility off the officers and giving them peace of mind that policies and laws are followed to the letter.
“There’s a cultural shift in police work to rely on technology like never before, for policy compliance,” said Dombkowski. “Some systems are smarter than others, in order to make sure that there is that compliance with technology, with policy and with law.”
Camera systems like BodyWorn can be programmed to activate automatically according to department policy. The video footage is then immediately uploaded to CJIS-compliant cloud storage in real time from the field, which:
- Removes the need for manual offload and hard storage.
- Ensures that video footage is tamper-proof.
- Increases the speed and convenience with which the footage can be viewed and shared with appropriate parties.
Video evidence management systems can also be programmed to store video footage for the required length of time and automatically archived when no longer needed.
“You have to have good policy with the right technology in order to have a camera solution that does what the public expects it to do,” said Dombkowski. Choosing a camera system that merely checks the box without considering the spirit of the law – increased accountability and transparency – or the benefits to law enforcement officers is a lost opportunity.
The technology is available now. The challenge is how to pay for it.
The funding puzzle
Funding is a major barrier to implementation for agencies who do not currently have a camera program, or who may want to upgrade their camera systems to make it easier to comply with policies and mandates about storage and access.
While some grant programs are available at the national level to help law enforcement agencies equip their officers with bodycams and in-vehicle camera systems, the funding landscape is patchworked at the state level.
Some states, like Texas, have existing grants programs to help law enforcement agencies access funds for camera purchases. Others are just now starting to provide funding to help agencies comply with new mandates, while some states are leaving agencies to fend for themselves.
Colorado legislators just recently recommended doubling the 2021-2022 budget set aside to equip state and local law enforcement agencies with body cameras. However, in New Mexico, agencies that did not already have body camera policies, like Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office in New Mexico, had to quickly scramble to find funds to implement programs and policies.
With police reform measures being implemented around the nation, there is a good possibility that additional funding resources will soon become available. However, they remain a moving target, and many law enforcement agencies are left to struggle to meet unfunded mandates.
Seizing the opportunity
Whether or not your state has enacted a body-worn or in-vehicle camera mandate, the tide is clearly shifting toward the adoption of body-worn and in-vehicle camera programs as a key element of many agencies’ reform efforts.
“We’re living in interesting times when technology and social issues are overlapping like they never have before, and you’re having technological solutions for social problems at a pace that is probably faster than it ever has been in the history of policing,” said Dombkowski.
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