Vol. 76, No. 1Panel discussion

Does body worn video help or hinder de-escalation?

The Panellists

  • Dr. Mary Stratton, research analyst and co-ordinator, Body Worn Video Project, Edmonton Police Service
  • Cst. Scott Messier, general policing investigator, RCMP, Northeast District, New Brunswick
  • Lieut. Harold "Lee" Rankin, Body Worn Camera Program, Mesa Police Department, Arizona

Dr. Mary Stratton

Advances in technology have allowed the development of audio-video recorders small enough to be worn on police uniforms. Body-worn video (BWV) is thought to help front-line police, investigations and prosecutions. Claims are made that the presence of BWV will calm down a tense situation, de-escalate aggression and reduce use of force during police intervention.

There's high interest among Canadian police agencies in the potential benefits of employing BWV but there's little research about this new yet unproven technology.

Aimed at providing an evidence-based foundation on which to make future equipment decisions, the Edmonton Police Service (EPS) Body Worn Video Pilot Project began in the fall of 2011 and will run until the fall of 2014.

It's the first in Canada to receive federal funding for a professionally designed assessment and evaluation of this technology in field use. It will review technical performance, legal considerations and usefulness in practice to everyday policing and investigation processes. The findings will also contribute to policy and procedure for practices related to the use of BWV.

With operational testing still underway, hard conclusions can't be offered at this time. However, some preliminary observations suggest the effect of BWV on police-citizen interactions of all kinds is variable and complex.

In the United States, interest in using BWV appears to be mainly driven by the frequency of violent incidents and the high cost often involved. Performance management is a stated goal of employing BWV. Rialto Police in California claim significant decreases in use of force and complaints due to BWV.

In Canada, police agencies have emphasized interest in BWV as an investigative tool, not a disciplinary measure. Generally, Canadian police agencies have far fewer use-of-force incidents than those in the U.S. What, if any, effect the presence of BWV would have in the Canadian context should be carefully examined.

If the use of force is only employed when necessary, BWV should not impact the number of incidents but could potentially offer stronger evidence and a 'third eye' record of the interaction.

Counter to this is the possibility that an officer wearing BWV may hesitate to act due to thinking about and manually activating the equipment. Currently all available BWV requires manual record activation.

It's been suggested that the presence of BWV will decrease aggression when police initially engage in an interaction with a citizen. This isn't possible to objectively measure. If both citizen and police officer are polite and non-aggressive from the start, there's no way to be certain if the presence of BWV was an influence.

Both police and researcher observations in the EPS pilot report that when a member of the public is intoxicated, high or in any other mentally altered state, and informed numerous times about BWV recording, there has been no noted de-escalating effect. Some of the participating members report that the BWV actually serves to further excite citizens.

The EPS pilot final report will examine EPS statistics to determine whether or not BWV has an objective effect on aggression. Interviews with the members testing the devices will also be analyzed and reported.

Preliminary findings, however, suggest that BWV is more likely to contribute to the understanding of incidents where aggression has escalated, rather than reducing the occurrence.

Cst. Scott Messier

Do people purposely behave differently when they know they are being video recorded? The fact is, reactions to a police officer's presence are unpredictable.

Any police officer will tell you how quickly a relatively calm situation can escalate into a precarious one, and usually without warning.

In my experience using body worn cameras during my general duty shifts at Codiac detachment in New Brunswick, I noticed that some people positively adapt their behaviour when they learn that a camera is fixed on them.

Body-worn cameras or body-worn videos (BWV) on police officers were not common in Moncton, N.B. People didn't know or expect to be filmed from the officer's perspective.

When I announced that they were being recorded on video with sound, most were surprised to learn they were on camera. Generally, their behaviour would become subdued almost immediately.

Examples of this change in behaviour included their tone of voice, which went from yelling and swearing to a normal, comprehensible level.

Sometimes calming a person down takes an incredible amount of patience and self-control on the part of police officers. The task of collecting and assessing witness testimony can be more easily done when the police officer doesn't have to filter out insults, threats and uncontrollable upset. This leads to quicker risk assessments and scene control.

In my experience, these changes in behaviour occurred more quickly by announcing the use of BWV devices than by increasing officer presence.

It's commonplace in public spaces to be monitored and recorded on Closed Circuit Televisions (CCTV). These fixed cameras can be seen everywhere. Warning signs that state video surveillance are in use are posted at building entrances yet people still commit crimes or behave badly. Perhaps this is because CCTVs blend into the background unnoticed.

Conversely, BWV equipment is obvious depending on the technology. If one of the goals of deploying BWV is to de-escalate violence or tension, then an overt solution is appropriate. To illustrate this point, picture someone with stage fright. When that person doesn't believe they're being watched, they act a certain way. Put a camera directly in front of them, and they behave lost, nervous or anxious.

I'm not advocating that the presence of BWV systems will change people's behaviour every time for the better. But I do believe that people are less likely to be abusive or troublesome when they are aware a camera is recording the interaction.

There are exceptions. An example is when I was dispatched to a local hospital to assist the medical staff with a defiant adolescent causing a disturbance. Even after being told her actions were being recorded, this person continued to kick doors, swear at staff, resist physical control and even attempted to bite me.

During my review of my BWV footage, I took the time to analyze my dealings. As a result, I was more aware of how I interacted with the public, which subconsciously improved my professionalism. Since a police officer's demeanour can influence another person's conduct, increased self-awareness through BWV can help de-escalate tension.

Lieut. Harold "Lee" Rankin

On October 1, 2012, the Mesa Police Department initiated a year-long evaluation of the Axon Flex on-officer body camera system. The evaluation focused on the system's impact on reducing departmental complaints, reducing use-of-force incidents and improving organizational transparency.

Fifty on-officer body camera systems were deployed throughout the department, predominately to patrol officers, and divided among the department's four patrol divisions.

To enhance the overall evaluation, the Mesa Police Department entered into an agreement with the Arizona State University School of Criminology and Criminal Justice to plan, monitor and evaluate the deployment of the camera systems through the use of line-officer surveys and field-contact reports.

Fifty on-body camera officers and 50 non-camera officers (control group) were asked to complete monthly field contact cards. Both camera officers and control group officers were advised of a randomly selected day per month in which they were required to complete a contact card for every citizen encounter.

The contact cards contain a series of 24 questions identifying the nature of the call, gender and demographics of the participants, suspect behaviour, type of force required, victim behaviour and officer perceptions.

Program officers produced more than 4,000 contact cards that are currently being evaluated. Although complete empirical data and the final analysis of the evaluation won't be available until January 2014, there's encouraging evidence to support that on-body cameras have an impact on the de-escalation of tension and ultimately contributed to a decrease in violence.

Throughout the evaluation period, the findings demonstrated that officers equipped with an on-body camera experienced a 40 per cent decrease in complaints and a 75 per cent decrease in use-of-force complaints throughout the evaluation period when compared to the previous year.

Although there has been resistance among some officers to adopt on-body cameras, nearly 77 per cent of officers who participated in the evaluation reported that the camera system caused them to act more professionally and 81 per cent indicated that it would make them more cautious when making decisions.

Anecdotal stories provided by camera officers offer insight into the value of on-body cameras during citizen encounters.

Officers reported that in many incidents, once an agitated citizen learned that their actions were being recorded, they quickly de-escalated.

Officer David Vogeler described a recent encounter with two gang members. From the onset of the contact, the two individuals were agitated and unhappy about the police contact. At one point, one of the individuals pulled out a cellphone and told Officer Vogeler that she was going to record the interaction and post it on YouTube.

Officer Vogeler pointed to his on-body camera and told them that he had been recording the entire interaction. Officer Vogeler stated, "As soon as they knew the camera was rolling, they started being polite." He said the citizen put the phone away and remained co-operative for the rest of the contact.

The presence of officer on-body cameras appears to modify officer interaction, as well as the behaviour of the person being contacted.

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