Ordinary cell phones are recording extraordinary results

Switching to cell phones to record use of force has transformed how officers engage, respond and learn


Reprinted with permission from the King County Dept. of Adult & Juvenile Detention InDepth Newsletter

By Linda Robson

Faster. Smarter. Lighter. Clearer. Are we describing the latest comic book hero turned silver screen blockbuster?

With the appropriate policy, smartphones are becoming an essential tool in corrections. (Photo/Linda Robson)
With the appropriate policy, smartphones are becoming an essential tool in corrections. (Photo/Linda Robson)

Nope. Just an ordinary cell phone.

You probably don’t give a second thought to the fact that you’ve made more movies of your pets and your kids than actual phone calls on your smart phone. For most of us, we don’t think of this technology as revolutionary anymore. But the movie-making power of that dime-a-dozen device in your hand has had a big impact on how officers interact with inmates each and every day at the two adult detention facilities in King County, Washington.

“We’d say, ‘Hey, go get the thing,’ when we had an anticipated use of force,” said Cmdr. Gordon Karlsson, head of the King County Correctional Facility in downtown Seattle. “Go see if the camera is charged up. It was a big camera,” he said, “and it was not unusual that it wasn’t ready to go.

“Nine times out of 10…well, no, that’s an exaggeration,” Karlsson confesses, “But too many times it wasn’t ready to operate – we didn’t have the right cartridge of film, the battery wasn’t charged, or halfway through the battery would go dead, or whatever. There was always some kind of drama with it.”

Even as the camcorder technology evolved, many of the frustrations remained the same. “There was a time when we had digital cameras that we would use to record, but it was the same scenarios,” says Sgt. Casey Allred, who is the lead for the Corrections Emergency Response Team (CERT) for the King County Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention. “Was it charged? Did it have a memory card in it? And then you get it and you realize there was no memory card in it – that kind of stuff.”

So why do it if managing the camera was such a pain?

“The policy dictates that the anticipated use of force will be documented, and we’ve pushed out an expectation that anticipated uses of force, when feasible, will be video recorded,” says Karlsson.

While clunky and difficult to manage, the old equipment still was able to serve its purpose back in the mid-1980s and well into the new millennium – document a use-of-force incident and create a video record that can be used in a criminal case, and can be stored and archived. But clunky equipment can lead to clunky deployment, and perhaps even a clunky mindset about when and if the camera should come out.

Uses of force can vary,” says Karlsson. “It ranges from giving verbal direction and commands to making physical contact with somebody and compelling them to do certain things. It goes from that up to and including deadly force.” He then quickly knocks his knuckles twice against the conference table and says, “That was knock on wood, for the record.”\

Having a camera within arm’s reach means that videos can document what led up to the use of force. (Photo/Linda Robson)
Having a camera within arm’s reach means that videos can document what led up to the use of force. (Photo/Linda Robson)

Karlsson continues, “So a lot of our uses of force, in the past when they were anticipated, were usually in the arena of a cell extraction. And if the manager on scene – the sergeant, the captain, whoever the decision-maker is at that time – they decide whether to activate CERT, which is at a certain level, or whether it’s going to be the resources on shift.”

“Now, I don’t want to make it sound like it is Road House,” Karlsson says with the hint of a smirk at the pop culture reference, “but there’s a time not to be nice. And whoever is calling the shots, whoever is the incident commander, makes that determination when it’s the time not to be nice and it’s the time to get things done. You know, there’s no bones about what we do. We have things that we have to accomplish.”

Karlsson points to his cell phone and says, “I think the communication before these was pretty minimal, because when the extraction team showed up, we were done talking and it was time for business. That was your last chance.”

“So in our archives, anybody reviewing our uses of force, well,” he says matter-of-factly, “they saw a whole lot of uses of force, and they didn’t see anything else.”

Time was when the big suitcase-sized video camera showed up it meant a bright line had been crossed. But that bright line belies the fact that the use of force is far more fluid, and that an interaction between an inmate and officers can roll up and down like waves coming ashore, reaching and receding and always in motion. Any bright lines are quickly washed away. The move to cell phones to capture use-of-force video means that, as the waves rise and fall, a video camera is always within reach, always available, and now can even be leveraged as a negotiation tactic instead of simply being an indicator that the time for talk was done and over.

“A lot of times you bring video to the situation, it’s a de-escalation tool in itself,” says Sgt. Allred. “You just start videotaping something, and they don’t like that, or they start to comply. So it’s just another tool you can use to gain compliance versus trying to go hands-on immediately.”

“I think most of the inmates recognize that these videos are evidence-gathering tools that can and will be used against them,” adds Cmdr. Karlsson. “Sometimes it can even impact a person’s behavior beforehand when we have an anticipated use of force, and someone says, ‘Just so you know, inmate Smith, you’re now being recorded, so everything that you’re doing here is documented.’ And you can go through the A-B-Cs of what’s going to happen.”

Having a camera within arm’s reach also means that the videos can document what led up to the use of force. The sergeant or supervisor now has the option to grab the cell phone off their utility belt and start the video the moment that voices and hackles get raised.

In a secure detention facility, introducing a new piece of equipment is never simple, and never without some risk. (Photo/Linda Robson)
In a secure detention facility, introducing a new piece of equipment is never simple, and never without some risk. (Photo/Linda Robson)

“There’s a lot of what I’ll call pre-game stuff or tools that are being done before an actual CERT team is called and responds to a cell extraction,” says Allred. “So starting that video, like Cmdr. Karlsson was saying, you now show what’s being done all the way up to the time of the cell extraction. So you’ll see officers and sergeants trying to de-escalate or get the inmate to comply, so you’ll see them try multiple times – several minutes, half hour, hours sometimes, just depending on the situation of what they can do to try to get the inmate to comply. And it’s really a last resort is when the CERT team is called.”

With the more nimble equipment comes a more nimble response, which means now there’s more video to work with.

“Clearly we have probably five, no, 10 times the video that we had historically. It’s exponential,” says Cmdr. Karlsson. “And I think that’s part of the training component – when something starts percolating, you have the ability to capture it on video. It’s just like the police have the ability to start gathering evidence as the incident is developing – that is a HUGE tool. The sergeant can come on and start recording immediately or delegate that the recording start.”

Introducing the new technology has opened the door to new opportunities – more video footage means more material for training and reviewing.

“You can actually critique and become a little bit more efficient and better by reviewing that film,” says Sgt. Allred. “It’s just like if I was on a sports team and they go back and review the game film and learn from weaknesses, and ask questions like, ‘Did we do enough de-escalation?’”

“You know, not every situation goes according to plan, so now we’re able to go back and look at a situation and learn from certain mistakes. So in that sense, I think the training has changed – that we’re now better equipped to learn from our mistakes and our weakness,” says Allred.

Ironically, what started out as a way to document use-of-force is now helping to reduce the uses of force – the switch to cell phones for video means the camera now captures when a situation is successfully de-escalated and resolved without physical force.

“Do we review the whole film, or do we just review the extraction? No, we want to review the entire thing to see if there’s something that could have been said or done that could have maybe gained compliance before we got to a certain situation or a certain time,” says Allred. “No one wants to go in and do that hands-on, because it’s a risk for everybody, right? Injury to the inmate and injury to the officer. We want to put all the tools and the gear on, and show up with a camera, and then give that last chance opportunity to comply so that it looks more intimidating and looks as if it is a serious situation and that we are going to come in, and allow that last chance opportunity for them to comply. And when they do comply, that’s the goal for everybody as a department.”

“We’d love to just suit up and go un-suit,” Allred says. “That’s our goal.”

“I think the CERT team is always interested in de-escalation and resolving an issue without force being used. So, you know, there’s not really a bookend there where it’s like, ‘Hey, the CERT team was called in, so we’re going in,’” says Cmdr. Karlsson.

Asked about those with the mindset that being a corrections officer is about taking names, knocking heads and kicking butt, Cmdr. Karlsson’s answer is swift and emphatic with a stone cold stare: “Wrong agency. Wrong. Agency.”

Karlsson says, “I appreciate the fact that there is an emphasis in the training and in the oversight that CERT and extraction teams at a lower level are easily reeled back in and de-escalated – that when the situation is de-escalated, that we match the threat and we match the escalation level of the inmate,” he says. “If they go down, we have to respond immediately, because if we stay up, it’s going to be a problem. And vice versa – if we’re not prepared for an inmate who can escalate that fast,” he says as he claps his hands together, “we’re going to have a problem.”

Use of force videos can be used to direct training during debriefings after an incident. (Photo/Linda Robson)
Use of force videos can be used to direct training during debriefings after an incident. (Photo/Linda Robson)

Sgt. Allred says, “The ultimate goal is to just to do the necessary reasonable force, and that you’re not going in and just dropping a hammer; that you’re able to gain that reasonable compliance so that you can get the mission or the job done that you need to, and that everyone’s safe. And I think you can see, if you were to go back, and of those ones that were recorded back in the day, I think you could see over time that that’s starting to happen – that it’s a little bit more efficient, that it’s a little bit more in sync in gaining that compliance.”

“I think it was a big culture change,” says Karlsson of the affect of switching to cell phones. “But for transparency’s sake and for accountability’s sake, it’s big.”

The benefits of the new technology go beyond the internal workings of the Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention. Having more videos, longer videos and capturing more of the interactions also helps boost the credibility and transparency with partner criminal justice agencies and with the public about what King County’s corrections officers do, and that only necessary force is used – no more, and no less.

“I think it also leads to increasing our credibility with the court,” says Karlsson, “that we as an agency, and we as a CERT team, and we as a department are going to engage in that behavior openly on a recording. It leads to that transparency and credibility, I think.”

“You know, in here it’s just like out on the street – it’s the officer’s testimony versus the inmate’s testimony,” says Karlsson. “When [it’s] on video, it speaks very loudly.”

If the switch to cell phones has opened so many doors and improved things so much, why didn’t we make the switch sooner? The answer is that in a secure detention facility, introducing a new piece of equipment is never simple, and never without some risk.

“At one point every supervisor had, well, a flip phone. And when we all started moving to smart phones, it was like, ‘Hey, these things can do video, and look at the quality of video,’ so we started having a discussion,” says Karlsson. “And I’m the dinosaur out of everybody saying, no way.”

Speaking about law enforcement in general and their sometimes tepid response to new ways of doing things, Karlsson says, “Well, we’re not known for embracing change.” But Karlsson continues, saying, “The bottom line is, they [cell phones] are clearly an asset.”

Noting to the risks that had to be weighed, Karlsson says, “I would venture that this as a contraband item in an inmate’s hand, this tool right here would probably go for easily 500 to 1,000 bucks. Easily.” He continues, saying, “Yes, there is a liability with supervisors having cell phones, and not to the supervisors themselves, but if I just misplace one, I just compromised the security of the facility.”

Before the switch was made, the risks were not taken lightly. And after the switch was made, there is still the understanding that it is a tool with limitations, and not a silver bullet.

“Now, keep in mind, this is only one view. It is not all encompassing, and many times today juries want DNA and video of an incident,” says Karlsson. “And keep in mind, that recording has an effect – it’s not neutral. Sometimes that can inflame things. Sometimes clicking on a recorder gets people positioning, and you could use the term ‘gaming’ to the camera. They know that there’s going to be an audience reviewing this at some point, in the back of their mind, and they think that this is going to convey a specific intention to reviewers, or maybe even the media or the public, so they start positioning and start acting out differently.”

“I can literally be escorting someone and feel someone tense up or start to pull, and the video may not capture that,” says Allred. “So I can feel or see something happening that’s not going to be picked up.”

Even with this in mind, the net benefit of faster, lighter, more nimble and more readily available recording devices in the form of cell phone cameras overall has been remarkable.

“You know, a lot things we do, I think, we have terms for, and moves that we use that are hard to describe to certain people, so then being able to have video paints a better picture for that reasonable use of force,” says Sgt. Allred. “Even if you don’t see everything or it doesn’t show complete a use of force on both ends, it does at least paint a little bit better of a picture, instead of trying to read a written report and figure it out from that, or re-enact something.”

“The video devices have changed, just as our protective equipment has changed, just as our communications have changed,” says Cmdr. Karlsson. “These things are a tool. They’re not THE tool, they are A tool in our toolbag. And I think it helps us communicate our mission and how we do things.”

“Now, compared to what we used to have,” says Karlsson, “we are light years ahead of where we were. Can it still improve? Yes.”

Cell phone cameras are certainly faster, smarter, lighter and clearer, but they are so much more in the hands of King County’s corrections staff. They also help create a safer, more secure and more humane environment for everyone.

And that is a heroic feat indeed.


About the author
Linda Robson is a communications specialist with the King County Dept. of Adult & Juvenile Detention in King County, Washington.

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