Most of us of a certain age range can remember sitting down for at least one episode of America’s Funniest Home Videos, chuckling to ourselves as some minor misfortune befell an unsuspecting innocent. But take a moment and think about what might have happened in some of those instances if you were responding as an officer to the report of an individual who got hurt under unclear circumstances… without that video showing the fact that yes, that person was in fact accidentally injured, there would have been no incontrovertible evidence that things went down as those present described.
Sure, we’re smart enough to deduce the truth most times, but the gray area of uncertainty has lately come to cast a shadow across any and all actions and decisions that we make – in the absence of absolute proof that something “went down” a certain way, the pall of suspicion and the heavy hand of administrative review based upon public pressure can and will grab you for investigation and possibly even disciplinary action. Eyewitness testimony (now proven to be unreliable in many circumstances) no longer fits the bill for definitive proof, and even if it did, the anti-public-safety bias we see from many these days probably means that the opinion scales might not tip in your favor. Here’s where the topic of cameras comes in – controversial, sure, but difficult to argue against as a delivery vehicle for true reality. But why would we want them? Let’s discuss.
Someone To Watch Over Me
Much of the argument against public safety camera usage centers around three topics: first, the protection of privacy of victims, second, the loss of the needed ability to exercise discretion, and third, the potential costs of storing and retrieving the sheer volume of footage created by a service which is on and responding 24/7 to calls. All of those are legitimate concerns, of course, but there are ways to address each of them.
In terms of privacy, automatic redaction software such as that used by Body Worn can efficiently handle identity protection for the innocent. Regarding discretion, it’s true that there may be less latitude on certain calls than there used to be. One possible solution includes the option for officers to temporarily disable the video – but only with a policy in place that they must document the reason for any “blank spaces” in a call’s progression. That may grant officers the ability to retain needed discretion, but also ensure that the integrity of the call as a whole in terms of the records is maintained. Finally, in terms of storage costs and records maintenance, the cost of one lawsuit which could have been avoided through video evidence is probably enough to justify whatever expenses are incurred.
Aside from the logistical concerns, however, many professionals are concerned that the camera might catch them doing something “wrong,” either perceived or in reality. The simple solution to that is to try to live up to the highest standards that we can in terms of our training and conduct, but the reality of life is that people make (and learn from) mistakes as part of getting ourselves to that higher standard.
The solution to that concern must come from the administrative level, via a different approach than the current hang-them-out-to-dry practice occurring in many agencies – I can guarantee that those administrators made plenty of mistakes on their way up through the ranks, and we need to return to a more realistic set of expectations based on the fact that public safety pros are human. (Incidentally, if we can get administrators to come around to that realization, chances are the public will eventually come around to it as well… having our current system of severe punishment and guilty-until-proven-innocent in regards to a perceived wrong reinforces the idea that the wrong was, in fact, both present and egregious, and the public’s unrealistic expectations of perfection are reinforced.)
I’m Ready For My Closeup
Like it or not, you’re already being filmed much of the time, whether you know it or not. Unlike a body-worn camera, which simply records what happened and presents it linearly, you’re putting your future in the hands of someone who might choose to edit the video to tell a different story than what actually happened – either through omitting part of what happened, emphasizing certain things, or even adding inflammatory narrative of their own as commentary. We’ve all seen that happen, and the results can not only end someone’s career, but even put them in fear of their life to the point where they have to go into hiding with their family.
If that happens to you, without the presence of video which shows the entirety of the situation (which is released quickly by your agency), chances are that public opinion and the media may have a chance to ramp up against you before you can mount an adequate response. With that video showing “our side,” however, there have already been many instances where allegations of discrimination, improper conduct, and worse have been nipped in the bud before they got any momentum behind them – sometimes even resulting in those making said allegations being charged criminally.
Like it or not, the end result is that we must submit to being videoed on our own to defend against those who would video against us, if you will. Imagine being put through the stress and uncertainty that follows being accused of doing something with an inflammatory video: being suspended, having the public cry out for your resignation or worse, facing attacks on your integrity, worrying about the safety of yourself and your family, and possibly even being tried despite having done nothing wrong except violate someone’s expectation of what “should” have happened in their uninformed eyes.
Now imagine that the simple fact of having had a camera on you, and having it turned on, deflects all of that in the five minutes it takes to watch what actually happened. Not much of a comparison in terms of the quality of your life and the health of your career, and, I would argue, a pretty strong incentive for us to start asking that cameras be in place and ready to protect you from the vagaries and volatility of public opinion, even as you protect and serve that public with honor.
Greg Bogosian is certified as a Reserve/Intermittent Police Officer by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and spent twelve years working as an EMT-Basic, including four years as a field EMT and dispatcher for the City of Boston EMS. He was additionally a member of a Federal medical disaster relief team for ten years, with experience responding to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and the pre-deployment of resources for Hurricane Ike. Greg currently has a passion for educating public safety professionals about matters which impact their lives every day, and welcomes feedback and suggestions in the spirit of ensuring that best practices make it out there for all to benefit from.