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The Thin Blue Line

by C. L. Stambush

The Thin Blue Line: Perception

Looking at it straight on, the idea of police wearing body cameras seems like a sound measure for keeping both police and citizenry accountable for their actions. A small lens clipped to the police officer’s uniform shirt pocket that holds a battery pack and sends video data to a remote server is a win-win. Technology is, after all, black and white. But shift the lens angle and a new narrative emerges—a backstory rife with perception, expectation, suspicion, conflict, assumption, accusation, failed technology, abandonment and more.

It’s this behind-the-scenes storyline that intrigued USI’s Dr. Melinda Roberts, Professor of Criminal Justice and Associate Dean of the College of Liberal Arts; Dr. Marthinus Koen, then USI criminal justice faculty and currently at State University of New York at Oswego; and Dr. Bryce Newell of the University of Oregon. The trio co-conducted and authored quantitative and qualitative research into how body-worn cameras (BWCs) were perceived by the police who wore them and the administrators who implemented the policy. Their months of research, published in the Journal of Criminal Justice in 2021, probed how BWCs influenced areas of reporting, decision-making, citizen encounters, behavior, training and supervision, as well as how variously ranked officers’ perceptions of BWCs were shaped over time.

“The Black Lives Matter movement has elucidated the strained relationship between police and the communities they are sworn to protect,” said Roberts. “With new pressure from communities across the United States to defund the police, research related to technology that may improve police-community relations is incredibly important and timely.”

The Players

The professors, using existing research conducted by peers, collected new data through surveys, interviews and ride-a-long observations to expand and deepen the body of academic work surrounding police use of body-worn cameras. Pennybridge Police Department (PPD)—a pseudonym researchers used for an urban police department in the United States to ensure confidentiality—granted the trio insider access. Among the several hundred anonymously participating officers across all ranks, two categories were identified: administrators—high-ranking officers, internal affairs and public relations officers—who enact policy, and users—patrol officers, detectives, first-line supervisors—who are more engaged in street action and directly interacted with BWCs.

While humans were the major actors in this inquiry, technology played a prominent role too: the camera equipment manufacturer ProCop (pseudonym) and the on-site server ViewSafe (pseudonym) provided.

Ideally, the researchers’ scope would have captured perceptions and beliefs surrounding BWCs prior to Pennybridge PD implementing them, but the department had initiated body cameras a couple years earlier, before the 2014 Ferguson, Missouri, shooting of Michael Brown by Police Officer Darren Wilson that many believe sparked the demand for police BWCs across the nation.

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

With a growing national trend toward distrust of police, transparency was key to the adoption of body cameras at Pennybridge PD. It tested and evaluated many companies, narrowing it to three before choosing ProCop because it offered the most affordable option.

“Due to the size of the department, the initial costs of purchasing enough devices and possible future storage costs were the main considerations for administrators when choosing a company,” said Roberts.

While cost and community openness were the reasons administrators expressed for initiating the use of BWCs, 67% of users said they initially feared the real motivation was a means of entrapping them, while 16% were neutral and 17% felt the BWC policy was enacted to support officers’ accounts.

“PPD officers had serious concerns about their privacy,” Koen said, noting this was documented to be true of officers across the United States. “In particular, they seemed worried that run-of-the-mill conversations between colleagues would be recorded for anyone to scrutinize.”

Roberts said their research showed this perception of “gotcha” was inflated among users when administrators rolled out a commonly practiced mandate that supervisors run scheduled checks to ensure patrol officers were in fact activating their BWCs.

Aside from perceptions users held, the camera equipment and on-site server provided by ProCop and ViewSafe proved problematic—from the clip that held the camera lens in place to the diminished battery life most officers experienced to the slow-loading, crash-and-freeze-prone servers. Officers interviewed reported camera cables came loose during foot pursuits or struggles with suspects and swung wildly, revealing jarring video images of the ground and distorted footage.

Like most police departments in the U.S., Pennybridge PD’s BWC policy required patrol officers to switch on their equipment when responding to a run, and to keep the cameras rolling throughout the course of the encounters. If arrests were made, patrol officers typically used the downtime in the jail, while waiting for suspects to be booked, to write their incident reports. The users reported the onsite servers were sluggish and videos took too long to download at the jail, making report writing during this time less feasible.

Rather than view their videos to aid in corroborating memories of events, most officers chose to rely on memory only, as they always had.

The exception to this were incidents deemed “complex” or involving “use of force.” In those cases, 70% of users reported they documented their incident reports in concert with the footage to ensure detailed accuracy, knowing superiors, prosecutors and the public were watching.

Electronic survey questions about officers’ use of BWCs when writing reports revealed roughly 25% said they used the footage in all cases while about 75% did not. When asked if the BWCs changed the way they reported their activities, only a small percentage said it did.

First-line supervisors responsible for patrol officers echoed similar frustrations with the tediousness of the technology. Those in the administrative group, however, didn’t share this sentiment because they didn’t interact directly with the technology. In use-of-force cases, prior to BWCs, research revealed administrators relied on information reported to them by first-line supervisors. They believed BWCs provided a tool that supported overall good policing and unburdened the department of unreliable witnesses and the fallibility of human memory.

Crimes and Misdemeanors

The eye of the camera influenced behavior in several ways. Researchers discovered that before BWCs, many officers said they employed their discretion and decision-making skills in cases of petty offenses and misdemeanors. For instance, if a teen was caught with a small amount of marijuana, an officer might take it away, grind it into dust in front of the teen and call their mother, said Roberts. Or, if a homeless person had curled up on a business’ private property during subzero weather, an officer could give them a ride to a shelter.

But Pennybridge PD’s policy of “record every citizen encounter” led 76% of officers to express that BWCs changed the way they policed. Among them, 57% said they no longer felt comfortable cutting people a break; 7% stated it had no effect on their behavior.

“Officers were afraid if they gave one person a break and let them off with a warning, and two hours later that person ended up killing someone, they would be reprimanded,” Koen said. “Moreover, officers feared their use of discretion (by letting some people go and others not) could be interpreted as preferential treatment by some members of the public or supervisors. To them, it was safer to use less discretion, which seemed to impact their job satisfaction.”

Knowing others were watching influenced behavior in both police and citizens, Roberts said. Administrators noted that officers weren’t as vulgar and were less sarcastic around citizens because of the BWC policy. The patrol officers acknowledged this to the researchers and reported that it encouraged them to be more verbal too, reciting step-by-steps of what they were doing for the camera’s record when they engaged officially with the public.

For their part, the public was not always aware of the camera, but when they were, users reported people responded in several ways: it made them more cooperative or reassured them their Constitutional rights were being protected or caused them to pander to the camera in hopes of becoming a YouTube sensation by talking and acting outrageous.

The research revealed BWCs caused some citizens, such as witnesses to crimes, to clam up. The users felt people seemed reluctant to provide a permanent video record of what they saw because they feared it would lead to retaliation from those they testified about in their statements.

“The researchers could not prove this to any extent,” said Koen, “but a handful of officers reported that BWC presence made people from higher social ranks more comfortable and willing to interact with the police when they were the victims of a crime. However, people of lower socio-economic status were less likely to be caught talking to the police in the case that they were the victims of a crime.”

Witness for the Prosecution

Part of Pennybridge’s strategy when creating the body-camera policy included releasing footage to the public and media as proof of no wrongdoing and to reduce public skepticism. “To PPD administrators BWCs were a symbol that they had nothing to hide and that the technology would vindicate police officers by showing that 99% of the time, they do the right thing,” Koen said.

But what you see isn’t always what there is. Ideologically, users understood the importance of releasing the footage, but expressed surprise at not always knowing in advance that it was being released.

The researchers learned users were concerned the camera didn’t capture the entire context of a situation. For instance, it couldn’t record what was running through an officer’s mind or the level of threat they perceived. They reported to the research team that they worried in a rush to be transparent, administrators would release footage to the public that only told part of the story and resulted in diminishing their credibility. This belief caused some users to express BWCs led them to “de-police” by being less proactive on the job, but researchers (including peer research) discovered no evidence of this happening.

The reliance on video footage as verifiable proof has made its way into the courtroom as a staple. “Some prosecutors don’t want to take a case to court without it,” Roberts said.

Assembling footage for a court case is labor intensive. The Pennybridge prosecutor’s office didn’t have the resources to scroll through hours of video footage to pinpoint the exact frames needed to show a jury, and the onus fell to the police. They reported to the research team “spending anywhere from two to eight hours tracking down, sifting through, watching and compiling footage for the prosecutor.

State law required Pennybridge PD keep all video footage for 180 days (an acceptable practice among many departments) unless it involved an ongoing case, then it needed to be kept until the case was resolved. This vast array of stored police-runs allows the footage to potentially be used as a training tool to supplement new officers’ knowledge as well as means of learning from mistakes.

“Videos should be used broadly in training and at shift briefings to demonstrate how officers handled difficult situations in exemplary ways, rather than to highlight mistakes made by individual officers,” said Newell. “The latter approach could seriously erode officer trust and job satisfaction. These negative videos could be used fruitfully in one-on-one training with officers to help them change unwanted behaviors.”

While the department had no strategic plan to incorporate videos into training at the time of BWCs inception, some officers reported taking it upon themselves to review and evaluate their own behavior during encounters with the public in order to improve their skillset and keep everyone safer. Koen said this was “especially the case among officers who belonged to specialized units such as K9 or SWAT.” Other users, however, saw the videos as a means of “nit-picking” their behavior and a budding source for “Monday-morning quarterbacking.”

The Day After Tomorrow

Prior to Pennybridge PD initiating BWCs, many viewed the technology's use as either good or bad, depending on the group the officer occupied, opinions waxed and waned over the course of the policy’s implementation and data collection. During this time, when the team peeled back the façade of this black and white thinking, a nuanced labyrinth was exposed.

While the equipment provided by ProCop and ViewSafe was eventually abandoned by Pennybridge PD in search of a replacement, the research executed by Roberts, Newell and Koen provided valuable insight into perceptions of BWCs and key recommendations for administrators to ensure trusting relationships between them and the patrol officers wearing the body cameras is developed.

“Program evaluation is one of the most important research methods in assessing the effectiveness of a program and identifying the intended and unintended impacts of the policies or laws related to the program,” said Roberts. “A strong, trusting partnership between academic researchers and criminal justice agencies can help these agencies determine what is working and how to change the things that are not working to achieve their desired goals.”

The professors' research unearthed issues and they offered several solutions to Pennybridge PD’s leadership, including forecasting the value of videos showcasing high-intensity situations using force as a training tool in the future, provided a strategic plan was developed for when and how videos would be used.

“A common thread connecting many of our recommendations,” Newell said, “was the need for more detailed and clear policy guidance around body-camera use in the department. For example, how and when footage would be accessed and used by supervisors or whether officers can (or should) watch their footage prior to writing reports.”

What the research revealed was not a cut-and-dry definitive on the issue of BWCs but a need for more research.

“It’s complex,” said Roberts. “Whether a person is an academic or not, they have an opinion about body cams. I have engaged in various debates with friends and colleagues since beginning this research. Many people, despite the various downsides illuminated in our research, believe that all police should have cameras and that is the be-all-end-all solution for solving the problems between citizens and police. Going into this research, I also thought that most of the findings would clearly point toward cameras being a positive program for both the police and community. Today, if someone asked me if all police should be required to wear body worn cameras, my answer would be, it depends.”

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