In the 1980s, a rural deputy patrolling the foothills could reduce personal liability, and enrich the quality of reports, just by dropping a voice-activated, mini-cassette recorder in a khaki shirt pocket. At the end of the shift, the cassette got labeled and dropped in a shoebox. For the cost of AAA batteries and a few packs of cassettes, cutting-edge recording technology was available to any officer who wanted it. Most of the time, no supervisors were informed, and no policies were ever written, or even considered.
Rural agencies face growing pressure to add body-worn cameras to their tech toolboxes, as officers, attorneys and the public increasingly depend upon recorded evidence. Since more than half of all U.S. law enforcement agencies serve jurisdictions with 10,000 or fewer residents, and nearly half have 10 officers or less, this is a financial and administrative concern too large to leave to inertia.
Begin by finding out what the experience has been of other small agencies; advance research prevents repeating others’ mistakes.
Besides news articles and professional listservs, scholarly research can provide an overview of experiences nationwide.
Body cameras provide visual evidence of police encounters and the perception of accountability – but that assurance comes with complexities and costs that must be carefully evaluated to make choices that safeguard officers, citizens and the public purse over the long term.
A bodycam program can pay for itself by averting the cost of a single lawsuit. Just make sure those costs – in coin, time and labor – are correctly assessed. The initial purchase price per unit per officer is the most commonly quoted figure when investigating costs. It’s misleading because it’s far from the only financial consideration involved with a recording device.
As with any piece of equipment, cameras will wear out and get broken. Maintenance, repair and replacement have to be considered upfront; electronics are relatively fragile, and physical fights and harsh weather are hard on them. That’s normal. Account for it in the initial bid. Rural officers frequently contact environmental hazards that urban officers don’t. Make sure whatever you buy will hold up to dust, mud, smoke and the occasional livestock intervention.
For small and remote departments, the more pressing concern is the technology required to download, organize, archive and then retrieve the data.
Decide first if there’s tech support available. Can a county IT department carve out time or bill for it? Is there a single tech dedicated to the sheriff’s office? If the answer is no, then who gets to handle the daily download and archive?
Choosing a unit with simpler operations may mean the difference between a useful program and one that has to be abandoned a few months in. There’s going to be a learning curve and serious time impact. Don’t underestimate it.
Many rural agencies rely on volunteers for non-sworn duties, but this is not an appropriate venue for volunteer labor. Video footage is evidence, and the chain of custody must be unimpeachable. Any gap in accountability degrades the integrity of future court cases and negates the value of the footage for law enforcement purposes.
Rural agencies rarely have the luxury of real-time streaming to cloud storage or large, flexible budgets as storage demands relentlessly increase. The same unreliable radio and cell coverage that makes MDTs impractical in rural and remote areas rules out streaming. Therefore, cloud storage will still mean an in-person download at the end of each shift, and it also means a subscription fee, rent for space on someone else’s server.
Storage on an agency’s site or server means budgeting for hardware, software and dedicated space, as well as labor to retrieve and possibly edit it when required for court or by media.
Policies are best decided before implementing a bodycam program. They can be purchased, but a rural agency may simply inquire of similar agencies and then modify their template to local needs.
A key question to address is when the officer should turn on the body camera. Recording every call safeguards vital footage when a “routine” contact goes sideways, but it also increases data generation.
Forever is optimum, but again – it costs. It’s easy to decide to keep footage related to critical incidents and violent crimes. Deciding what’s expendable can be costly when footage requested for an eventual appeal (or a lawsuit) has already been purged. The lapse can allow transparency, and even integrity, to be questioned.
Is that disturbed-subject call a medical concern subject to HIPAA regulation? Or is it solely a criminal matter once the subject attacks the officer on camera? Policies need to address the rights and privacy of juveniles and sexual assault victims, as well as the safety of potential witnesses.
In many places, this question is answered clearly in state law, but in far too many other places, it’s not. A clearly worded policy provides a framework in that absence.
Training is the next pressing concern. Every officer who will use a body camera needs to understand its operation and maintenance. If officers will be required to turn on the camera before every public contact, then habit and muscle memory must be developed. Hitting that switch must become as routine as taking off a seatbelt, or calling location in to dispatch.
Finally, agencies must ensure their communities, no matter how remote, are informed about a new body camera program. This is where the built-in “community policing” factor of a rural area can be used to advantage. Make an announcement over social media, offer a Q&A with the sheriff or chief, and ask a local reporter to cover the new use of technology.
Then, make sure each officer is well-trained and versed in the intent, policies and advantages of the recording devices, and empower them to answer questions in the course of their work. Rural officers don’t have to seek out “members of the public” to talk to them. They’re going to be standing next to them in line at the bank, or in the bleachers at a Little League game.
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Used correctly, body cameras can be the best, cheapest insurance an officer or agency has. They can win court cases, and avert complaints and lawsuits. With clear planning and due diligence, rural departments can succeed with a body camera program.
Kathleen Dias writes features and news analysis on topics of concern to law enforcement professionals serving in rural and remote locations. She uses her background in writing, teaching and marketing to advocate for professional levels of training and equipment for rural officers, open channels of communication for isolated departments, and dispel myths about rural policing. She's had a front-row seat observing rural agencies – local, state and federal – from the Sierra foothills to California's notorious Emerald Triangle, for more than 30 years.
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