BWC footage benefits – improved evidence, training, transparency, safety and reduced liability – far outweigh the costs
By Philip J. Swift, PhD
Since their release, body-worn cameras (BWCs) have become an essential part of the American policing model. A 2018 Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) report studied the use of BWC by general-purpose law enforcement agencies and found the following:
80% of large police agencies have purchased BWCs
60% of police agencies and 49% of sheriffs’ offices who had purchased BWCs had fully implemented them
When questioned, BWC vendors and police agencies state that the most common reasons for implementing a BWC program were to improve officer safety, increase evidence quality, reduce complaints and reduce agency liability.  As an added benefit, BWC footage has created an almost endless supply of real-world scenarios that can be used to improve the training experience of new and seasoned officers.
It goes without saying that the proliferation of BWCs in a post-Ferguson world has created the expectation that not only will police officers be outfitted with BWCs, but that video captured during an incident will be available to the public. Further, many agency heads have begun to release BWC footage as quickly as possible to avoid the perception of a coverup and to provide the officer’s perspective for comparison against civilian cellphone videos that are often posted within minutes of an incident occurring or as the incident is unfolding. With all of this in mind, you would be hard-pressed to find a police administrator who doesn't agree that the reputational and financial liability of a single critical incident can far outweigh the cost of a BWC program.
COSTS VS. LIABILITY
Although few would argue the need for police agencies to have BWC programs, not everyone has considered the value of BWCs in the corrections setting. If BWC programs offer all the benefits stated above, how could one argue that BWCs would not offer the same benefit to corrections officers?
Like police officers, corrections officers work in an environment where critical incidents can arise quickly, liability risks run high, officer and civilian safety is paramount, transparency is expected, complaints are common and continued training is necessary to improve services. However, unlike police officers, corrections officers are responsible for the health and welfare of the inmates they manage 24/7, and this responsibility requires extensive documentation in the form of logbooks or computer entries and the use of rounds tracking devices. Some facilities have gone as far as incorporating RFID tags to track staff and inmate movements in real-time.
Why then have jails and correctional intuitions not adopted BWC programs at the same rate as police agencies?
One of the largest factors, without a doubt, is the cost of starting and maintaining a BWC program. By far, the most expensive part of a BWC program is the long-term storage of video. In the corrections field, the value of BWC data is not just when a critical incident arises, but in the recording of day-to-day activities, such as making rounds, conducting searches and mass movements.
Due to these factors, the storage costs faced by correctional intuitions are likely to be higher per officer than that of police officers. Not to put too fine of a point on it, but the adoption of any technology requires the cost savings saving created by the implementation and management of the new technology to outweigh the potential liability of failing to do so. It is almost as if the field of corrections is waiting for a critical incident of such magnitude that the cost of creating a BWC program is outweighed by the cost of not having one.
Enter Jeffrey Epstein. Epstein was a highly successful financier and broker who rubbed elbows with economic and political heavyweights, members of the British royal family and Hollywood elites. Epstein was also a twice-convicted sexual offender and sex trafficker who was found dead in his cell on August 10, 2019. Although Epstein’s death was ruled a suicide, his death drew interest from across the globe when it was discovered the officers charged with monitoring Epstein had failed to follow policy and issues concerning the tier security footage. To this day, questions and conspiracy theories abound and the facility holding Epstein was forced to accept liability for his death.
Epstein’s death and all of the attention that it garnered provide correctional intuitions with a textbook argument for the adoption of a BWC program. As an example, Epstein was considered a high-risk inmate due to the nature of his crime, statements previously made by Epstein related to returning to prison, his notoriety, his wealth and at least one previous suicide attempt while in custody. Based on this information, Epstein was placed in special housing where he could be monitored and separated from other inmates and would have made the officers assigned to his supervision prime candidates for BWCs as a means of reducing liability and possibly saving his life.
In a case like this, a robust BWC program could have:
Revealed policy violations committed by officers prior to the incident, allowing for proper training and correction (liability, safety and training)
Created a video record of the inmate’s behaviors, movements and interactions (risk management and transparency)
Created a video record of the crime scene and surrounding area prior to and at point of discovery (improved evidence and training)
Created a video record of medical and staff response to the incident (liability, training, transparency and safety).
Created a video record of responding staff and others in the area (improved evidence, liability, training, transparency and safety).
Ensured retention of all related videos (improved evidence, liability and transparency)
Though this is just one case supporting the implementation of a BWC program, it is important to not lose sight of the fact that if BWCs were in use in this facility, this data would be available for every inmate should an incident or a need to audit practices arise. Due to this fact, the cost of a BWC program, and the storage of the captured data must be measured by the value of having this data on every inmate, not just those considered high-risk. Based on the success of BWCs in the field and the value of BWCs in correctional intuitions, it is easy to understand the rationality of implementing a BWC program in a correctional facility.
About the author
Philip J. Swift is currently serving as a city marshal in the DFW area of Texas and has been a law enforcement officer since 1998. He holds a Ph.D. in Forensic Psychology. He has several published works and regularly speaks locally and nationally regarding his research and expertise in law enforcement and criminal culture.