Police & Fire

State Announces Pilot Program for Body Cameras

By Terry Rogers

After an extensive evaluation by the Department of Homeland Security, Governor Jack Markell and Secretary Lew Schiliro announced plans for State and Municipal police offers to participate in a 30 to 45 day trial using body cameras throughout the state. The state has asked for proposals from camera manufacturers regarding how they would supply cameras to the state for the pilot. Although the pilot program was instituted after meeting with the Governor, Secretary Schiliro, Colonel Nate McQueen, head of the Delaware State Police and representatives of the NAACP at the end of 2014, the state wants to address a number of complex privacy, procedural and technical issues before deploying the cameras statewide.

According to Detective Kenneth Brown of the Milford Police Department, police body worn cameras can be very beneficial to both the police and the public by providing a unique perspective on police encounters. Detective Brown says that the cameras provide a context of what took place during a police/citizen incident, providing police with information to dispute frivolous police misconduct. For the public, Detective Brown says that the cameras help protect them against misconduct.

“We believe that these cameras will help with issues, provided that the public is aware of their limitations,” Detective Brown said. “Body cameras do not follow the eyes. At the current level of development, a body camera is not an eye tracker. It photographs a broad scene, but it cannot document where within the scene you are looking in a given instant. If you glance away from where the camera is concentrating, you may not see action within the camera frame that appears to be occurring right before your eyes.”

Detective Brown said that body cameras also do not recognize physiological and psychological phenomena that can be experienced under high stress. The human brain often suppresses incoming visual images that seem unimportant in a life-threatening situation in order as a survival mechanism. The brain, instead, focuses narrowly on the threat. Because this is an instinctive reaction, a person may not be aware of what the brain is screening out.

“Your brain may also play visual tricks on you that the camera can’t match,” Detective Brown said. “If a suspect is driving a vehicle toward you, your brain will make it appear much larger, closer and faster than it actually is. Camera footage may not convey the same sense of threat that an officer may experience. Later, someone reviewing what’s caught on camera and judging your actions could have a profoundly different sense of what happened as opposed to what an officer felt at the time it was occurring.”

Governor Markell said that he felt that the use of body cameras would help police officers, while also protecting citizens. He said that the cameras could strengthen the trust between law enforcement and the community they serve. Detective Brown agrees with the assessment, but feels that it is important to understand that the limitations of body cameras should be addressed as well.

Detective Brown said that danger cues could not be relayed by a camera. He said that police officers are trained to know, often by touch, if a suspect is going to resist arrest. In those instances, an officer may apply force as a preemptive measure, but on camera, that will appear as an aggressive move because the camera cannot record sensory cues. Because camera cues also do not record at the speed of life, they often do not capture important details in the millisecond gaps between frames. Body cameras actually record by taking a series of photographs, similar to what the video mode on a cell phone records. Detective Brown said that something as brief as a muzzle flash or the glint of a knife blade may not be seen on a body camera recording.

There are benefits to body cameras, however. A body camera sees better in low light than the human eye. When footage is screened later, it is possible to see elements of the same scene in sharper detail than when the incident actually occurred. In dim light, the human eye may see a suspect holding a gun, but the camera will clearly show that it was a cell phone. Although this can assist officers in some cases, it could make a reaction seem inappropriate once the video is viewed.

“The public also needs to understand that the officer is in control of whether the camera is on or off,” Detective Brown said. “This may occur because of the need to protect the victim’s privacy. Police officers are interacting with persons in many ways that should be private. A citizen may ask to speak to an officer in private, giving information or asking for advice on a private matter. Police are constantly in people’s homes for many reasons that really should remain private. Police deal with victims of serious crimes and their privacy needs to be protected. While it is good to have more transparency, it’s also a balancing act with the privacy issues needed for the public.”

Currently, Milford Police Department has five body cameras, but have not put them into service at the request of the Attorney General. The Attorney General’s Office is working to overcome legal issues regarding the cameras such as storage, redaction, victim’s rights, equipment and manpower.

Detective Brown said that there are times when a police body camera can be detrimental to an investigation. He said it is important for both the public and the government to understand the limitations of body cameras. In addition, Detective Brown says that footage can be released to the public too early and this can jeopardize an investigation.

Body camera manufacturers are being asked to provide 12 units that will be deployed by the Department of Safety and Homeland Security in order to evaluate the program. The manufacturer must provide cameras capable of capturing real-time activities of both law enforcement and those they interact with as well as a method for storing data that does not require the state to dedicate brick-and-mortar square footage for retention. In other words, the storage must be cloud-based and have the ability of providing coverage for the entire state.

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