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How to develop and fund a body-worn camera program for corrections

Video technologies are transforming law enforcement operations; what considerations go into the deployment of bodycams in correctional facilities?


Editor's note: Video technology is impacting every facet of modern-day life, shaping the delivery of education and training, transforming how we communicate with each other, and advancing surveillance and security. This special coverage series, Video in Corrections: How Technology is Transforming Prison & Jail Operations, takes an in-depth look at how correctional facilities can use video to improve both operational efficiency and officer and inmate health and safety. Watch for further installments of this series throughout February.

Body-worn cameras (BWCs) are old news in mainstream law enforcement, but a relatively uncommon presence in corrections. That is likely to change, although rollout probably won’t go as fast as it did with police organizations.

A major consideration in formulating both your vendor and your policy strategy is how you will handle stored and archived video. (Photo/Columbia County Sheriff's Office)
A major consideration in formulating both your vendor and your policy strategy is how you will handle stored and archived video. (Photo/Columbia County Sheriff's Office)

BWCs are a slightly harder sell for corrections because the critical incidents corrections officers must handle often go unnoticed unless they get covered in the media. Cell extractions and attacks on staff and other inmates aren’t likely to be posted on YouTube by a bystander with a smartphone camera.

Management buy-in

The first step is to get buy-in from top management, which usually means also getting the endorsement from wherever your funding comes from. This will be necessary even if you get a grant or other outside financing for the initial purchase, because a BWC program has a significant follow-on cost (more about that later).

One approach to get the blessing from management is to research the cost of defending inmate lawsuits and paying out awards and settlements.

Some lawsuits will arise from acts of outright misconduct, but others can boil down to a he said/she said dynamic, where whichever party makes the strongest argument prevails. Video evidence can make or break these cases.

In mainstream law enforcement, when complaints are made against officers who were wearing BWCs, video evidence usually vindicates the officer and proves the complaint to be unfounded.

Federal funding is an unknown quantity

Federal grants for BWC projects have been a ripe source in years past, but the future of these grants is uncertain. Congress has difficulty agreeing on the priorities for the federal budget, so most recent budget legislation has only extended the existing funding for a few weeks or months. New grants don’t get funded under these “continuing resolutions.”

It’s also unclear how generous the new presidential administration will be to local governments seeking grants for BWCs and other projects. The upshot: don’t count on the feds to write you a check for your BWCs. It might happen, but it might not.

The BWC vendors have a vested interest in knowing sources of funding, and they will often help you identify grant opportunities and write the grant applications for them. Exercise some caution here, as the grant application written by XYZ Corp. will likely specify hardware that only XYZ Corp. can provide, effectively locking you in to that vendor if your grant application is successful. This doesn’t mean that XYZ is necessarily a bad choice, but it’s wise to keep your options open until you are at the point where you must commit to a vendor.

Who should supply your cameras?

Choosing a vendor is your next hurdle. This is relatively new technology, and the market has been saturated with new BWC manufacturers and larger, existing manufacturers that have started BWC product lines. In the latter case, the product lines are often acquisitions of smaller companies with a marketable product.

Social media can be a great tool for getting a sense of each vendor’s product reliability and customer service. Law enforcement and corrections discussion forums tend to be populated with working officers, as opposed to management and executive types. These are the people who use the equipment and know its strengths and weaknesses, and they are seldom afflicted with political correctness. If a camera is unreliable or the vendor turns a deaf ear to requests for repairs or replacements, they will be brutally frank about it. The same folks will praise gear they have found they can depend on, or that is replaced immediately if it breaks or goes down.

If a vendor seems to be a good choice, but has bad reviews online, it merits a conversation with that vendor if you’re considering them as your supplier. Every business has a disgruntled customer who can’t be satisfied, but if there are multiple complaints from more than one customer, you may wish to get some specific guarantees that your agency won’t be the next one to complain. If the vendor can’t or won’t make assurances to your satisfaction, look elsewhere.

The elephant in the room

A major consideration in formulating both your vendor and your policy strategy is how you will handle stored and archived video. Over the duration of your BWC project, your agency will likely spend far more money on storing and retrieving video files than it will on the hardware. I wrote about this several years ago (Why Obama’s bodycam initiative won’t work), and if anything, the problem is bigger, as newer cameras are producing video with a higher resolution and larger file sizes.

Your state may have statutes that mandate how long you are required to store evidence and documentation. If so, at least one decision about archiving has been made for you. If not, include your local prosecutors, risk managers and whoever defends your agency in civil actions when you formulate your video retention policy. At least some of these people will urge you to keep the video archived indefinitely, but that comes with a significant price tag, and one that will grow every month as the archive expands.

Privacy concerns

One consideration on BWC use that doesn’t have as much impact in the corrections sector is privacy. Conventional law enforcement must take privacy into account when making or disseminating video recordings, as there can be civil liability when bystanders or witnesses are identifiable in the recordings, or if identifying details like street addresses or license plates are visible. There are new video redaction solutions to help with these issues.

In corrections, privacy is not as serious a consideration. The courts have generally held that a prisoner’s right to privacy is overridden by reasonable and necessary institutional security measures. Corrections environments do not usually include private citizens’ license plates or bystanders who are not either staff or inmates, so redaction is less of a concern. You may still need to redact video from time to time. For example, if a forcible cell extraction includes a naked inmate, it’s probably a good idea to block out any displays of nudity before the video reaches the press or a courtroom. So, while you need a redaction capability, you probably won’t have to rely on it as often as law enforcement does.

Staff training

Before your BWC program is rolled out, every staff member needs to be thoroughly trained in both the technical and the philosophical aspects of the system. Your staff will be more policy-compliant if they understand why they are required to perform each step.

Supervisors need be especially knowledgeable, as they ensure compliance and function as resources for staff with questions or inevitable technical problems.

Supervisors must also understand that they will be responsible for reviewing random video segments from each staff member on a continuing basis, to ensure compliance with BWC and other institutional policies. This can be a significant burden on the supervisors’ time, and some adjustments of duties or even an increase in the number of supervisors may be in order.

As with all operational policies, there will be a need for fine-tuning and revision once the pitfalls are known. Build into your policy a periodic full-circle review, with input solicited from staff at every level. The feedback you get from your line officers is at least as important as that you receive from top management.

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