by Michael Balderston
WASHINGTON — There has been a growing national debate — which has coincided with the number of police shootings that have occurred over the last few years — about the use of body cameras by police officers. As Capt. Bob Blakley of the Fairfax County Police Department (FCPD) told the crowd during his keynote speech at the 2015 Government Video Expo on Wednesday, Dec. 2, there is a “crisis of confidence” in the police right now, and many believe that body cameras are the answer.
But, as Blakley explained, it is not something that can simply be fixed overnight.
“If you’re deploying a camera the day after you said that you wanted it, you’re probably going to run into some huge problems and wish you hadn’t,” Blakley said.
One of the leaders of the Fairfax County Body-Worn Camera initiative, as well as the recently appointed chair of the newly created Body-Worn Camera working group of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, Blakley has been working on the policy of instituting a body-worn camera program for a few years. And that is the key to the whole process, he said; that this is not a simple IT solution, but rather a major policy project that must be looked at from all angles.
While the predominant call for these cameras has been to provide transparency around violent incidents that have resulted in the deaths of officers or suspects — Capt. Blakley offered examples of how cameras have been useful in these kinds of situations — body cameras could be used in many other situations, including instances that may raise privacy concerns.
Some recommendations have called for cameras to be used for all official police duties, but that often includes many non-criminal activities that take place in homes and other areas where privacy is expected. When is it appropriate to record or not to record?
“Privacy consideration is probably the number one consideration that folks in our project and many others are working through,” Blakley said.
And it’s not just for civilians; there is a level of privacy expected by the police officers as well. “We can’t tell them to turn [the camera] on at the beginning of the shift and turn it off at the end of the shift and record 12 hours,” he explained. “Officers take breaks; they have candid conversations about life, about calls. And if you look at any sort of social of psychological science, you find that some officers deal with horrible situations in weird ways.”
But privacy is just one of the issues that need to be addressed when creating a policy for body cameras. Others include program stability, how it impacts officers both operationally and morally, financial considerations, technical aspects like storage and the limitations of cameras, and learning how to balance the policy between community and criminal justice needs.
To achieve this last goal, Blakley and the department have reached out to a number of community groups to receive feedback about the use of body cameras, including the NAACP, mental health professionals, domestic violence advocacy groups and others.
“We basically met with any group that was willing to meet with us to discuss our program,” Blakley said. “We learned some things from them and we provided some information in return. All that information together helped mold our policy.”
Blakley and the FCPD also researched and discussed potential policies with other police departments across the nation. They surveyed 50 of the largest police units in the country, and even took some site visits to those on the East Coast. There were also discussions with the Police Executive Research Forum and the International Association of Chiefs of Police, both of which have released guides on body cameras. FCPD also hosted a body-worn camera industry day.
All of this has led the FCPD to the point where they are ready to launch a pilot project. FCPD is currently awaiting the go-ahead from its elected body. Even once the pilot project is underway, there will be lots of new information to consider.
“In that test pilot we will collect a lot of data, we’ll test our policy and assumptions, we’ll have community feedback so we can respond and make adjustments to our policy as needed,” Blakley said. “We’ll collect some post-test data, we’ll draw conclusions, we’ll share them publicly.” Then, after filing a report with the department’s political body, the organization will make a purchasing decision.
The goals of body-worn cameras will be to provide more accountability and transparency, to reduce complaints and minimize the use of force, and to identify and correct internal problems. Capt. Blakley knows all of that cannot simply be achieved by slapping a camera on an officer. That is why he and the Fairfax County Police Department have gone to such lengths to assure that they get this right.
The 2015 Government Video Expo continues until Dec. 3 at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center. Registration is still open. Details can be found at www.gvexpo.com.