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6 tips for implementing a body-worn camera program in corrections

Key steps include creating a policy to govern bodycam use, choosing the most appropriate equipment and getting buy-in from COs


Sponsored by Axon

By Corrections1 BrandFocus Staff

Body-worn cameras provide an effective tool for reviewing officer/inmate interactions, as well as a training aid and a deterrent for inmate misbehavior. But the manner in which a body-worn camera program is implemented plays a pivotal role in its ultimate usefulness.

When it comes to selecting a body-worn camera system, consider your facility’s specific needs and be sure to select a camera with sufficient battery life to cover a full shift, such as those from Axon, which last 12 hours per charge. (image/Axon)
When it comes to selecting a body-worn camera system, consider your facility’s specific needs and be sure to select a camera with sufficient battery life to cover a full shift, such as those from Axon, which last 12 hours per charge. (image/Axon)

To determine the best ways to implement body-worn cameras in correctional facilities, Corrections1 spoke with two veteran corrections administrators:

  • Lt. Dan Brodie has served more than 20 years with the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office in Oakland, California. He led the device selection, policy development and implementation for the second generation of ACSO’s bodycam program as a member of the department’s Support Services Unit.
  • Steve Maher is a former deputy commissioner and chief of investigations with the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision. A military veteran and attorney, Maher also teaches at the State University of New York at Albany in the College of Emergency Preparedness, Homeland Security and Cybersecurity.

Here are six tips from their combined advice for creating a body-worn camera policy at a correctional facility, choosing the most appropriate equipment, and getting buy-in from corrections officers.

1. DON’T REINVENT THE WHEEL 

When it comes to developing policies for body-worn cameras, correctional facilities should review the equipment policies they already have in place and use these policies as a guide. In many instances, existing rules governing the issuance, maintenance and control of items such as pepper spray, batons and mobile radios will serve well in managing body-worn cameras.

“Don’t waste your time reinventing the wheel when you don’t have to,” said Maher. “At the same time, there will be areas unique to body-worn cameras where new rules are required. In these instances, it makes sense to reach out to other jurisdictions already using this technology to find out what rules work in practice and which ones don’t.”

2. DETERMINE YOUR EQUIPMENT NEEDS 

There is no one-size-fits-all technical solution for correctional facilities. When it comes to selecting a body-worn camera system, administrators need to figure out their specific institution’s equipment needs. Factors to be considered include:

  • How many bodycams are needed, including spares.
  • How rugged these cameras need to be.
  • The number of batteries and chargers required to cover all shifts, including spares.
  • Whether to use shared devices (to save money) or individual devices (to make each user responsible for their body-worn camera and improve handling).
  • IT issues, such as system management, data storage, access to footage and other related concerns.
Consult multiple vendors and verify their performance claims before committing to a purchase. Battery life is especially important because the camera must be able to last a full shift. Shown: Axon Body 3.
Consult multiple vendors and verify their performance claims before committing to a purchase. Battery life is especially important because the camera must be able to last a full shift. Shown: Axon Body 3. (image/Axon)

“You’ll want to talk to multiple vendors about products and verify their performance claims,” said Brodie. “For instance, during the ACSO acquisition process, we dealt with seven camera vendors, all of whom said that their batteries would last 12 hours per charge. Testing revealed that only two vendors’ batteries met this claim, one of them being Axon. This is important because you need your camera batteries to last a full shift.”

3. ENGAGE USERS IN THE PROCESS 

The footage captured by cameras worn by front-line corrections officers can fundamentally affect these officers’ careers. This is why COs and everyone else who will use the bodycams needs to be engaged in the implementation process, for everything from policy-making and equipment selection to training programs and rollout schedules.

“Giving users stakeholder status is central to the acceptance of body-worn cameras by officers, and that’s where you really need buy-in – from the people who are wearing these every day,” Maher said. “When you don’t do this, COs can view the implementation as just one more thing being forced on them by management.”

4. SET CLEAR GOALS 

Setting clear goals is akin to choosing a destination on a map: Knowing where to go simplifies the process of getting there.

“To set achievable goals for your body-worn camera implementation, look at your institution’s culture and decide what improvements can be made by adopting this technology,” said Maher. “These can include improved officer/inmate safety, deterring inmate misbehavior and false mistreatment claims, better overall accountability, resources for officer training and accurate materials for after-action reviews.”

Other issues that can be resolved by setting goals include determining who will wear the bodycams and whether they can choose to wear or activate them. Brodie notes the difference made by changing “should” language in his agency’s original bodycam policy to “shall” language in the second generation.

“A lot of those ‘shoulds’ implied discretion that meant the cameras weren’t turned on and weren’t being used,” he said, “so while we were changing our policy, we became a ‘shall’ agency, and our policy lays out what you shall be recording.”

Whatever the case, rules governing the use of bodycam video and who reviews it and when should be determined at the outset to ensure a sense of fairness and instill confidence in COs.

5. DECIDE HOW THE FOOTAGE WILL BE USED 

Determining the circumstances in which video will be reviewed is a critical step. Do you review all uses of force? Do you perform random spot checks? The three main purposes for review are quality assurance, training and investigations.

It can be useful to use video as a quality assurance tool to assure that policies are followed – or even for the purposes of commending someone for a job well done, says Brodie.

“There’s value to periodically reviewing or auditing the video to make sure that things are going right,” said Maher, “particularly when perhaps you’re having trouble in the facility.”

It’s also an important training tool. Review of actual bodycam footage provides an opportunity for COs to hone their skills, akin to athletes reviewing gameday footage, says Maher. They can identify what goes right or wrong and work through training scenarios using actual events.

“This is a real opportunity for us to see what works and what doesn’t,” he said. “Even something as simple as how to talk to inmates and de-escalation procedures captured on body camera footage can be really great things to use.”

When it comes to investigating incidents or inmate complaints, body-worn cameras provide a record of what happened. The footage doesn’t always provide definitive evidence, cautions Maher, but it captures audio and details COs might not notice in the heat of the moment for a more comprehensive report.

“I can tell you from supervising thousands of these investigations, one of the first questions anyone asks is, ‘Was there a video?’ as soon as an incident happens,” Maher said. “It provides a more complete picture. Sometimes things will get recorded that you wouldn’t see in a statement or from another camera, and the audio can be very compelling. A lot of times you can hear the tension in someone’s voice – all those different emotions that people have that you might not see in a video.”

6. SET ACCESS RULES AND STORAGE LIMITS 

Body-worn cameras also provide an important tool to provide transparency and build trust with the public. This is why rules governing authorized access, editing/redactions and how long the video will be stored should be determined at the outset.

“The ACSO retains body-worn camera footage for three years at the direction of our county council,” said Brodie. “That said, a year’s storage is considered to be sufficient in many jurisdictions. For legal and political reasons, this is an issue that institutions and their governing bodies need to decide for themselves.”

Like everything else, adds Maher, be sure to have a written policy that can be justified and articulates a clear reason for the amount of time your facility stores bodycam footage.

For more information, visit Axon.

NEXT: Double the impact: How combining less lethal devices and bodycams can enhance safety in corrections

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