38 Important Questions to Answer Before You Invest: Body cameras are just part of a complex audio and video documentation puzzle
(The Chicago dashcam video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Zz03rvyhIk) of the shooting of a 17-year old released last evening 11.24.15 raises many of the questions that must be answered prior to purchasing body or in-car video/audio cameras.)
Let’s face it in law enforcement these days whether it is on campus or in the city, county and state LE groups the issue of outfitting officers with body cameras has become a national focus with many LE organizations rushing to get the grants and funding to purchase equipment. One in three police departments in the U.S. are using body cameras for at least some of their officers, according to a 2013 study conducted by the US Department of Justice.
President Barack Hussein Obama has proposed a three-year, $75 million investment that could help purchase 50,000 body-worn cameras for law enforcement nation-wide. The goal is that these cameras will increase accountability for the police and civilians.
However, there are questions and issues to consider before making decisions on audio and video equipment that LE personnel would be wise to answer and resolve in advance of making such significant investment.
Let’s consider how will the purchase of a body camera lead to an all-inclusive system of audio and video recording?
As a crisis communications professional, when debriefing and investigating clients’ situations and how well they handled their crisis, I want to understand the complete context in which an action or reaction to a situation has occurred. Video obtained from body cameras is only one piece of a complex puzzle and only provides a glimpse into the overall event.
If we are to successfully either prevent or manage an organizational crisis, then we must understand from outset to completion how the incident came to be and how it evolved so that a time-line can be generated to see how and why decisions were made during the incident. Simply, this means that you need the audio 911 recording from the minute the incident starts at dispatch and the entire audio and video dialogue between dispatch, command and patrol until the incident is resolved.
I believe that simply reviewing video of an incident as it evolves or erupts even with audio from the scene can be presumptive without overall context and can lead to less than accurate interpretations by command, the media and the public.
Simply, when doing crisis investigations and reconstructions without pre and post context you are severely handicapped in determining how and why certain decisions to act or react were made.
In other words, body cameras are just another tool in the documentary arsenal. When selecting audio and video equipment consider these factors and answer these questions in advance of any purchase:
- Does your body or in-car camera have as good an audio recording capability as it does a video capability?
- Does the video and audio recording begin immediately or is there a delay?
- Does your 911 system have a dedicated audio recording system that has the capability of backing up files for quick future reference, ease of use and rapid association with the video capture?
- Is the quality of the audio recording systems for incoming 911 calls and your body cameras the best available?
- What is the quality of a night recording on the camera?
- How easy is the body cam system you are considering for an officer to use?
- Does it have an on and off switch or is there the capability for an immediate on using other activation parameters?
- How much work will be required of an officer to download videos from the camera, label them and store them in a secure database or video management system? How often will they be required to do so? How easy is the download process to learn and use?
- How durable are the audio/video hardware systems for the weather conditions under which they must operate in your community?
- Have you vetted the durability and reliability of the equipment through other LE departments that have experience with them?
- Have you investigated the cost of operation/maintenance based on other LE departmental experiences? What are the annual costs of repairs and replacements for departments of a similar size?
- Is the system comfortable to wear and reasonably unobtrusive?
- Where will your officers wear these cameras i.e. chest, shoulders, on helmets or eyewear? Different mounting positions come with different challenges. A chest-mounted camera view could be blocked by an officer’s arms when in a shooting stance. A shoulder-mounted camera will not follow the officer’s line of site when peering around a corner with the officer’s back against a wall.
- Do you and your officer understand and are you willing to accept that wherever you place the camera it still won’t capture 100% of the actions, which is why audio capability is equally important.
- What is the length of the video and audio that can be captured on the camera?
- Does the camera only support a proprietary rather than a standards-based video format?
- Is the video format the same as current cell phones in the market place? Using such a format will help eliminate complicated video analysis issues later on because of the need to convert the footage to a standard format, which can also impact the actual video quality.
- Does the camera provide date and time visuals and other possible environmental conditions?
- From the moment of capture to storage does the camera encrypt the data so that it cannot be altered?
- Can the camera’s audio and video be remotely accessed by command, viewed real-time and recorded at command central?
- What does the system you are considering cost in terms of hardware compared to other systems?
- What “unusual” and “unexpected” hardware issues have other departments had with the system?
- What will be the cost of training, technical support, video storage, software to analyze and manage the audio and video evidence?
- Does your department have Informational Technical (IT) support, or will training of each officer be required using the vendor’s training resources? Does the vendor provide a “train-the-trainer” program?
- Can the vendor provide IT support 24/7/365 and what will it cost annually? What is their turn-around time on a call for immediate assistance? Are they willing to come to you on immediate notice?
- What policies and guidelines need to be developed to ensure transparency and accountability?
- When can an officer record or not record an interaction?
- How long will you keep the video evidence?
- Do you have offsite backup (cloud) storage for long-term evidence needs?
- How will the data be shared externally?
- Do you know and understand the requirements in your state to consider before releasing footage to the media or public?
- What research and considerations have you made and integrated into your policies concerning privacy of the videos, as it relates to the public?
- Have these policies been vetted by your legal/public affairs team?
- Is it necessary in your state for you to redact (or visually blur) video frames of innocent bystanders, minors or witnesses?
- Do you need to purchase and have staff trained on how to do manual frame-by-frame redaction/blurring?
- Do you have the in-house resources and/or do you need a consultant as part of your review team to make sure the hardware fits your community’s specific needs?
- Will the vendor agree to allow you to run a minimum test and trial of the equipment for 30-90 days or longer with larger purchases of cameras?
- Have you investigated available grants at the state and federal level?
It will be necessary for your department to plan and conduct a “test-trial” of the hardware using table-top and field exercises to assess the audio/video quality of the equipment and to “test” your policies, procedures and communications and crisis plans under different environmental and work conditions. These exercises should be inclusive from the moment of 911 dispatch to resolution of the event.
Finally, it is essential that you collaborate with your public affairs officer and your crisis communications manager to develop, implement and test an inclusive and comprehensive communications plan to engage the media and public during your trial.
This exercise should include not only the traditional media (newspapers, radio and television); it also should include a well-defined and executable social media plan that at a minimum includes Facebook and Twitter. The use of exercise platforms such as offered by Nusura (www.nusura.com) can be helpful at this phase.
Remember the general public is divided between those that are concerned about privacy implications of body cameras and those that demand their use by police departments to increase accountability. Therefore, it is critically important that you demonstrate transparency and openness in all communications associated with the purchase and use of your body cameras and let the public and media know how you will address any issues that may develop from their use.
If you have questions or need assistance in developing a crisis communications plan please visit www.ldarrylarmstrong.com for free resource materials.
We are available to assist 24/7/365 by calling 1.888.340.2006.
Your feedback and comments are appreciated.
L. Darryl Armstrong PhD
L. Darryl ARMSTRONG and Associates
Behavioral Public Relations LLC