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Justice Department Issues Guidance on Body Cameras

Proponents say body cameras reduce the number of complaints against officers.

By University Alliance on September 23, 2014
Feds Offer Guidance on Body Cameras

The U.S. Department of Justice has released a set of guidelines for police use of body-worn cameras, increasingly popular devices that law enforcement leaders say can boost officer accountability and police-community relations.

The Justice Department’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) teamed with the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) to develop the 33 policy recommendations after researching the issue for more than a year. The guidelines, published in the September 2014 report Implementing a Body-Worn Camera Program: Recommendations and Lessons Learned, give suggestions for the general use of the cameras, training, data storage and access, and program evaluation.

Specifically, the guidelines include protocols for which officers should wear the cameras, when the cameras should be turned on and off, when officers should obtain consent to record and how the existence of the recordings should be handled in written incident reports.

Although the number of law enforcement agencies using body cameras is rising, a PERF survey conducted in 2013 found that very few of those departments had written policies governing the use of body cameras. Many police executives told PERF that they lacked guidance on formulating such policies.

Officials with departments that use body cameras have reported generally positive results, according to the new report. Early research has re-enforced the benefits of the cameras, showing that they reduce complaints against officers as well as the number of incidents that require police and other law enforcement professionals to use force.

However, the COPS report also cautioned that body cameras can be financially costly, and could breed skepticism and suspicion between officers and community members. Use of the cameras also raises concerns about individual privacy.

“Body-worn cameras can increase accountability, but police agencies also must find a way to preserve the informal and unique relationships between police officers and community members,” PERF Executive Director Chuck Wexler wrote in the report.

The New York Daily News reported in September 2014 that nearly 4,000 small and medium-sized departments are using or testing body cameras. That same month, the city of West Melbourne in Florida voted to spend $28,500 for 25 police body cameras, according to Florida Today. The West Melbourne Police Department will join departments in nearby Cocoa and Cocoa Beach in using body cameras.

Officials with the New York Police Department announced in September that the agency will begin a pilot project for the use of body cameras in a handful of high-crime areas. Departments in Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles, Calif., also have started testing the devices.

“Like other new forms of technology, body-worn cameras have the potential to transform the field of policing,” the report by COPS and Police Executive Research Forum concluded.

Category: 2014 Headlines