Cops weigh in: Video technology's impact on policing

We asked our audience to weigh in on topics like the use of body cams, crowdsourcing video evidence, and the future of video in policing

Few forces are impacting law enforcement like video. Policing in the Video Age, P1's yearlong special editorial focus on video in law enforcement, aims to address all facets of the topic with expanded analysis and reporting.

In the first installment of this four-part signature coverage effort, The Video Technologies Shaping Policing, we address how technologies including police drones, throwable robots, body-worn cameras, dash cams, and videos shot by the public are impacting law enforcement. Click here to learn more about the project.

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In today’s world, nothing is making a bigger impact on law enforcement than video. From throwable robots to footage shot by the public, the rise of video technologies is shaping everything from training and policy to community relations and investigations. We asked 212 members of our audience to weigh in on a series of questions related to video in policing, including the use of body-worn cameras, crowdsourcing video evidence, the future of video in policing, and much more. 

1. What do you think is the most important/impactful video technology in modern policing?

Unsurprisingly, the majority of our audience (70 percent) believes body-worn cameras are having the biggest impact on law enforcement today. As adoption of this technology continues at a rapid rate, it’s important to review the many complex legal issues that are tied to the use of BWCs. Check out Terry Dwyer's analysis of key cases all cops should know.

2. What video technology do you think will play the biggest role in 10 years?

Over 80 percent of our audience believes facial recognition is the video technology that will play the biggest role in law enforcement operations a decade from now. Keep an eye out this winter for the fourth part of our special coverage series on video, which will explore this and other future tech.  

3. What is your biggest concern about the impact of video on policing?

The biggest concerns our audience had with the rise of video technology broke down into three categories: legal issues, officer safety, and cost.

The camera doesn’t necessarily tell the whole story, and many officers are worried that overreliance on video in court cases could cause trouble.

“The fact that video evidence and officer recollections might and will be different due to the human factor and how officers' bodies deal with high-stress situations, this will cause many officers to potentially be seen as dishonest,” one member wrote.

There are many signs of danger that a camera cannot capture, such as subtle changes in a suspect’s body language, that a trained eye will pick up. “It [video] does not encompass the entire situation, which is why we still write reports,” another member explained.

Are we heading into an age where a lack of video evidence unfairly undermines an officer’s credibility on the stand? Many who took the survey believed so.

“An officer is no longer taken at his word. Our testimony used to hold a lot of weight, but now if an offense/statement/etc. was not caught on video, it's as if it didn't happen. Prosecutors want that video before they will move on an offense even if we witnessed it,” one poll participant said.

Another common concern was the rise of “deadly hesitation” – the theory that police officers will be more hesitant to use justifiable force because they fear a negative response.

“The general public is not understanding of the emotions, fear, and quick decision-making involved in the actual incident. The video is unable to reflect this,” said one participant.

“I believe today's culture towards policing has negatively affected the way some officers respond in these situations and could pose a threat to safety. Some officers may be too afraid of negative reactions when they use the amount of force appropriate for a situation,” another added.

Finally, cost was a major theme among responders, particularly when it comes to evidence management and public records requests. 

 “Public disclosure requests for any and all video forces agencies to comply with state law for disclosure and forces agencies to cease BWC programs due to the expense of complying with requests,” one member wrote.

4. Has video ever played a key role in clearing you of wrongdoing in a use-of-force case?

Nearly 40 percent of respondents said video played a key role in clearing them of wrongdoing in a use-of-force case. While it’s important to remember that recording devices such as BWCs are no panacea, this underscores their utility in these cases.

5. Should all police officers be equipped with body cameras?

Given the overwhelming push towards more transparency in law enforcement operations, it’s inevitable that every street cop in America will be outfitted with a body camera at some point in the future. 62 percent of our audience agrees that all cops should wear the device.

6. Has your agency ever crowdsourced video evidence in a case?

In an age where nearly every member of the public has a camera in their pocket, crowdsourcing video and photo evidence in investigations can play a vital role in bringing criminals to justice. Forty percent of cops who took the poll say their agency has employed this strategy. Here’s our breakdown of the lessons learned from previous crowdsourcing cases and key considerations for police agencies.

7. Was video filmed by a civilian ever instrumental in solving a case at your agency?

It’s no surprise that the rise of amateur-shot video of criminal activity has been a boon for investigators. Here’s how your agency can best obtain these pieces of evidence from the public.

8. Does your agency plan to use drone technology for surveillance/investigative purposes in the future?

UAVs have a staggering number of law enforcement applications, and while only 40 percent of respondents say their agency plans to use the technology for investigative purposes in the future, that number is likely to grow as the technology becomes more widespread. Check out our case study of how the LASD plans to implement the tech into their operations.

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