Body-Worn Cameras: Can You Afford to Be Without Them?

By Chief Sean Whent, Oakland (CA) Police Department Police Chief

Imagine your agency has experienced an officer-involved shooting and social media is full of damaging misinformation. A line such as “The man was unarmed and surrendering when he was viciously executed by the police,” can be incredibly damaging, even if it is not true.

What would it be worth to you to have the actual incident captured on video?

In situations such as critical incidents, it is essential for law enforcement to be able to get the truth out quickly. Public mistrust and instant social media messaging can be a dangerous combination. As Mark Twain once said, “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.”

In this post-Ferguson era of policing, public trust in law enforcement is in short supply. The days when a police chief could simply tell local media what occurred are over. Television and newspapers are no longer the public’s only source of information.

Law enforcement professionals will all agree that public trust and support are absolutely essential for the police to effectively carry out the mission of enhancing public safety. Open and clear communication strengthens that community trust.

Having a dependable source of information regarding critical incidents is paramount to our relationship with the community. Body-worn camera video footage provides reliable information that can be shared with the public to allay concerns or clarify what happened.

With the prevalence of cell phone cameras, many police-community interactions, particularly highly contentious ones, are already being captured on video and released to the public. While cell phone recordings can be an additional source of information, police cannot always access cell phone footage quickly in the aftermath of a critical incident. Nor do such recordings show the officer’s perspective.

It would be devastating to a department’s reputation for its chief to recount a version of events to media that is later disproved by a citizen’s video. This is unlikely to happen if the department uses body-worn cameras and the chief can review the footage before making a statement.

The fact that body-worn camera footage can be viewed immediately following an incident means that police departments can develop a factual narrative to share with the public and provide the information to the media before social media runs away with the story.

As we in Oakland have learned, and, as outlined in the case study below, it may also become necessary for departments to release video footage if misinformation begins to drive the public dialogue. A picture speaks a thousand words, and body-worn camera footage can immediately bring an element of objectivity to the narrative.

While there are many complex issues to consider when law enforcement agencies embark on a body-worn camera program (e.g., data storage, cost, personnel training), the value of the evidence gained makes the venture worthwhile. Rather than ask whether your budget can cover the costs of a body-worn camera program, the real question is this: can you afford to be without them?

Case Study: Body-Worn Camera Footage and Public Trust

  • Situation: On August 12, 2015, the Oakland (CA) Police Department (PD) was called to a situation that ended in the death of carjacking suspect Nathaniel Wilks (“Joe Bart”).
  • Public Reaction: Social media was quick to point fingers at the Oakland PD, including a post on Twitter that said “At the scene yesterday, an eyewitness told me he was shot in the back 5 times and was surrendering. #JoeBart.” One day after the incident, this hashtag had been shared nearly 5,000 times, demonstrating the amplifying effect of social media.
  • Outcome: On August 19, 2015, the Oakland PD shared body-worn camera footage with the media in order to dispel misinformation. The footage showed the suspect pointing a gun in the direction of officers before they shot him. Body-worn camera footage provided irrefutable evidence that there had been no police misconduct.

Is your organization interested in developing a body-worn camera program? Check out BJA’s Body-Worn Camera Toolkit, a comprehensive clearinghouse for criminal justice practitioners interested in planning and implementing a body-worn camera program.

For a prosecutor’s perspective on body-worn camera programs, check out this TTA Today post by the National District Attorneys Association’s Kay Chopard Cohen.

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Points of view or opinions on BJA NTTAC’s TTA Today Blog are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice, BJA, or BJA NTTAC.