The in-car camera: Value and impact

By Lonnie J. Westphal, Chief (Retired)
Police Chief Magazine

In the late 1990s, lawsuits alleging race-based traffic stops were being filed against state police and highway patrol agencies throughout the United States. In some instances, the courts ruled that racial profiling was occurring. These court findings strengthened the public perception that racial profiling by police did occur and weakened the public''s confidence in the police.

If it was occurring, state police executives sought proactive steps to stop biased policing and to restore the public confidence in the police. Many departments deployed the in-car video camera to record traffic stops and other encounters with the public. In the spirit of building public trust, the in-car camera recording provides an unbiased account of events that allow citizens and others to view what actually occurred during encounters that have been called into question. Agencies and others report that such evidence has been invaluable and that the benefits of the in-car video camera far exceeded the original goals.

COPS Office Funding
In an effort to aid state police agencies confronted with allegations of racial profiling and other complaints, the Department of Justice''s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) created the In-Car Camera Incentive Program. The program provided financial aid to state police and highway patrol agencies for the sole purpose of purchasing and installing in-car camera systems. The first federal awards were dispersed in 2000, and, by the end of 2003, 47 states and the District of Columbia had received a total of more than 21 million dollars in federal assistance for the purchase of in-car cameras.

Prior to the COPS Office In-Car Camera Incentive Program, 11 percent of the state police and highway patrol vehicles were equipped with in-car cameras. Currently, 72 percent of the state police and highway patrol vehicles used for patrol are equipped with video systems, and this number continues to increase. During a three-year span, the number of in-car camera systems grew from 3,400 to 17,500. Twenty-five percent (4,500) of the in-car camera systems were purchased through the COPS Office incentive program.

Measuring the Impact of In-Car Cameras
In 2002 the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) was tasked by the COPS Office to conduct a national study to measure the impact of in-car cameras on state police and highway patrol agencies and the communities they serve. The purpose of the study is to develop a best practices guide for selection and acquisition of in-car camera equipment and to provide an updated model policy for the use and application of in-car cameras. Twenty states were selected for the study. What follows is a description of the preliminary results of this study.

To measure the impact that in-car cameras have had on policing, the in-car camera project''s advisory board selected the following critical areas as the focus of the study:

  • Officer safety
  • Professionalism and performance
  • Complaints concerning police practices
  • Public opinion
  • Agency leadership
  • Training
  • Homeland security
Officer Safety: This study is showing that the single greatest value of the in-car camera is the positive impact that it has on officer safety.

The written survey asked the officers and troopers to rate the impact the cameras have on their personal safety. The written survey results indicated that the officers perceived only a slight feeling of increased safety when the camera was present. This response contrasted significantly with the interview responses. Following the interview protocol, researchers ask the officers how they use their recorded videotapes; an overwhelming majority stated they review their videotapes as a means of self-critique of their actions.

Individually, officers said they review how they approach each situation and take mental notes of any officer safety issues they discover, such as turning their backs on a potentially dangerous individual, or allowing themselves to be distracted by other persons or events. Troopers also reported when communicating to the citizen that a camera was recording the incident it would deescalate situations that they felt were becoming confrontational, thereby improving to officer safety.

A small number of officers reported that the camera distracted their attention away from the violator and they would find themselves performing for the camera. Some troopers believed that, when positioning themselves and the violators, they sometimes put obtaining the best possible camera angle ahead of officer safety. It was noted during this study that these officers seldom received any formal training in the use and operation of their cameras.1

Professionalism and Performance: On the written survey, when asked how the use of the camera has affected their professionalism and performance, officers reported only a slight improvement in both areas. In general, the troopers selected the response "We are all trained professionals and the camera should not have any impact on our performance."

But during the in-depth interviews, troopers commented repeatedly that it is only human nature to perform to the best of one''s ability when you know you are being recorded. Also, knowing that supervisors regularly reviewed the video recording for performance evaluations prompted them to behave more professionally.

In addition to reviewing the tapes for self-critique, many officers reported that they replayed their video for report writing, obtaining exact statements for evidence. Especially in the realm of consent searches, this enabled the officers to better prepare cases for presentation in a courtroom, where they may need to recount how they established probable cause for enforcement actions. They reported that the video record of each incident allows them to rely less on memory when writing reports afterward.

Troopers reported that another great advantage the camera provides is the opportunity to review and critique a variety of dangerous situations such as felony stops and vehicular pursuits. While most agencies routinely review all vehicular pursuits to ensure that they were conducted within the scope of departmental policy, the tapes serve an evidential value also. The tapes document the violator''s infractions leading to the chase as well as during the chase and the ending of the chase. In addition, the review of the tapes can often help investigators locate weapons or contraband that may have been tossed from the suspect''s vehicle.

In the unlikely but possible event that the officer is injured or killed in a high-risk stop situation, investigating officers have the ability to review videotape. The chances of apprehending offenders in these instances are dramatically improved.

There is a downside: some troopers reported becoming increasingly dependent on their recording equipment to document the sequence of events and statements made rather than mentally retaining information and taking notes. The troopers reported during the research interviews that they replay the video recording to prepare their written reports, rather than using the videotapes to verify and enhance their observations and notes. Because of this growing dependence on the recording, a few troopers reported that they feel that their interviewing and note-taking skills have declined.

Complaints Concerning Police Practices: The study also showed the significant impact that the in-car cameras have on improving the officers'' ability to respond to complaints regarding professionalism and courtesy. The written survey asked troopers to describe specific complaints filed against them and explain how they or investigators used the camera to adjudicate the complaint. Most of the troopers reported that the camera had ultimately cleared them of accusations of wrongdoing; very few reported that the camera sustained a complaint filed against them. According to the responses of more than 3,000 officers completing the written survey, the statistical data indicates that 96.2 percent of the time, the recording of the event exonerated the officer of the allegation or complaint. Complaints were sustained by video evidence 3.8 percent of the time.

Initial complaints against troopers are generally handled in the beginning by the first-line supervisor. Research interviews with supervisors mirrored the findings from the line officers, but added two new dimensions:

  • In at least half of the instances, once the complainant is made aware that the stop or contact was recorded, the complaint is withdrawn.
  • A significant amount of time is saved in conducting investigations when a videotape of the incident is available.
In most cases, a supervisor investigating a complaint first reviews the video recording of the event before calling any witnesses or interviewing the officer, determines whether the allegation requires further investigation, and then notifies the complaining party of the findings. The experience of some supervisors has shown that reviewing the tapes and then explaining the trooper''s actions will usually satisfy the complainant.

Internal affairs sections also reported on the value of in-car cameras. Internal affairs units in the participating agencies reported that first-line supervisors are resolving more complaint cases and not sending them to the internal affairs office for formal investigations. The benefit is that relatively minor complaints regarding an officer''s demeanor or their actions during traffic stops can be reviewed and dealt with in a factual manner and addressed appropriately when there is a camera present. Overall, a majority of agencies using in-car cameras reported a higher number of exonerations of troopers when video evidence was available.

Public Opinion: As part of the study, the evaluation team administered written surveys and held open meetings with citizens to gauge public opinion in each state visited. Most of those responding to the written survey indicated that they approved of the police agencies'' use of the in-car camera. Most also believe that all police vehicles are equipped with in-car cameras and that each camera is mobile and can follow the officer around the scene. In reality, not all vehicles are equipped with in-car cameras, and in those that are so equipped the cameras are stationary and have a limited viewing area.

Agency Leadership: Agency executives reported that the cameras are a welcome, unbiased tool to ensure the accountability and the integrity of the officers in the field. Years of community perception research have established that officers'' attitude, demeanor, responsiveness, and attentiveness toward a citizen determine that citizen''s satisfaction with the police service. In fact, the citizen''s confidence in the police depends on their perceptions of a police officer''s motives more than on whether the outcome of a contact with an officer was favorable to the citizen.2 The institutionalization of in-car cameras along with a regular supervisory review process ensures professional accountability in citizen contacts.

Although a virtual ride-along review of a trooper''s action will never replace the personal contact between supervisor and field trooper, the periodic review of the trooper''s video recordings by the supervisor is a valued element in today''s supervisory process. Issues of officer safety, demeanor, and professionalism can be diagnosed and addressed accordingly. The video recordings, along with other supervisor observations, may serve as an early warning of an officer having problems. For example, observations during a review of a recording that shows an officer suddenly becoming easily agitated or short with the public may alert the supervisor that the officer is under additional stressors and the concern needs to be addressed. The camera, in effect, can provide another level of supervision while providing additional protection for the agency against liability.

The agency leadership must establish policy and procedures on the use of these systems. In the final analysis, even the best systems are of limited use if they not employed properly. Issues of when the video system must be in record mode, when the tapes should be replaced, how the tapes are reused, how the chain of evidence is maintained with the tapes, and how the tapes are stored all must be addressed by the leadership.

Training: The in-car camera can serve valuable training purposes. Experienced officers can use the video recording as an effective tool for self-critique. When training new officers, the instructors have the ability to review the new officers'' actions through the objective eye of the camera, immediately after the event occurs, thus enhancing the learning process.

Video recordings provide the agency with a wealth of material that may be used for other training purposes. Training officers can develop lessons around unusual or even routine events recorded on videotape for pre-service as well as in-service training to reinforce appropriate behavior and procedures, to demonstrate inappropriate practices and procedures, to enhance interpersonal skills and officer safety habits and to augment the instructions of field training officers and supervisory personnel.

Obtaining actual video recordings of field action enhances training. Nevertheless, it is important to remember that in using recordings from the field that depict either positive or negative police behavior, care must be taken to present the material in a way that will not embarrass an officer or undermine morale.

Homeland Security: Video recordings of highway contacts could soon be transmitted directly to a central location where these images can be compared with state records, suspect files, or terrorist watch lists. Not only could this information help protect the officer but the recorded audio and video could perhaps provide information needed to locate terrorists. In-car video cameras can be considered an important tool for providing maximum national security.

The Future
The in-car camera can improve citizens'' confidence in the police profession, enhance the ability to capture and convict violators, record inappropriate police behavior, and provide valuable data in our efforts to ensure homeland security. It is becoming documented that public safety will benefit from having in-car video cameras available to all police officers. Agency executives and community leaders should ensure that adequate resources for the proper management, storage, and retrieval mechanisms in hardware, software, and personnel are provided. There must be appropriate policies and guidelines in place to guarantee that while citizens are being protected their personal privacy is not being violated.

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