Rules of the game

Most police officers who start wearing bodycams for the first time ask three questions: who wears the camera, what do you need to record, and who has access to the footage? These questions are intricately linked to each other. In a departmental policy where it is mandatory to record all interactions with all citizens, access to the recordings will almost always be considerably limited. On the other hand: in jurisdictions where all recordings are a public record, officers will probably demand (and be awarded) considerable discretion on wearing and activation of the bodycams. The choices that are made in this part of the departmental policy determine to a large extent whether the police and the public will perceive the bodycam as a means to improve police accountability or as a surveillance instrument the police can use to monitor the public.

Training and guidance

Officers who start using a bodycam often receive technical training on how to attach the camera to their uniform, how to put it in stand-by mode, and how to start or end a recording. This is important, but not enough for a successful bodycam project. Officers also need to be actively aware of the “rules of the game” and of the reasons for using the bodycam. They will be the ones in the field actually using the technology and they have to have a clear picture of how they can optimally leverage the technology to make it work. If the officers believe the bodycam is meant to gather evidence for prosecution, they will use the technology differently from how they would use it if they believe it is meant to de-escalate potentially risky interactions. If officers are sent out onto the streets without a clear strategy, they will find out as they go, which in turn will lead to outcomes that are individual and thus impossible to generalize to the whole of the force.

If the first major incident with bodycams is a case in which a complaint is successfully countered by the recording there is a good chance that support for the bodycam among officers will increase. If, however, the first time a recording is used it leads to disciplinary action against an officer who used too much force, officer buy-in of the technology will probably suffer as a consequence. In most police forces, stories about the first experiences are shared over coffee or in the field and will be heavily influenced by the opinions of the most vocal officers within the force.

Police departments can actively organize the dissemination of experiences by working with “ambassadors” within the group of officers. These ambassadors help colleagues with technical, legal, or organizational questions and can defend the integrity of the program and compliance to internal guidelines. In one precinct in Amsterdam, with two very active ambassadors, use of the bodycam was seven times as high as in the other precincts, the knowledge of the legal framework was twice as high compared with other areas, and officer buy-in was at the highest level of the whole police force.

No policy will be perfect from the start: adjustments will almost always be necessary. It may be advisable to include findings from an evaluation of the impact of the bodycam. This can help build and sustain political support for the bodycams and it will help officers to use the technology in the most effective way.

Legal framework

Different jurisdictions have different frameworks that govern the use of video and audio in policing. This impacts on the way the bodycam is experienced by police and the public. The law may for instance require two-party consent before a recording can be lawfully initiated; or it may explicitly prohibit any audio recording. In addition, the local laws may force police officers to wear placards, sometimes even on the back of the uniform, to actively inform citizens they may be recorded by a camera. These legal differences clearly also influence the visibility of the bodycam, thus impacting on the preventative effect. Different legal systems also impact on the involvement of employees themselves, for instance through labor unions. The European General Data Protection Regulation, for instance, limits the use of wearable cameras to situations where their use is necessary for a legitimate interest pursued by the controller of the personal data that is gathered by the bodycams, making it hard for recordings to be used as evidence in cases where personal safety of the officer was not in danger.

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