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How bodycams in corrections can improve outcomes and accountability

Body-worn cameras provide an objective record that can discourage bad behavior, decrease the likelihood of frivolous grievances and make it easier to investigate when incidents do occur


Sponsored by Axon

By Corrections1 BrandFocus Staff

It’s a fact: Correctional facilities benefit when their officers wear body-worn cameras, thanks to the impartial documentation of officer/inmate interactions that bodycam video provides.

The presence of bodycams recording what actually happens can deter inmates from breaking rules, fighting and making false claims against corrections officers. (image/Axon)
The presence of bodycams recording what actually happens can deter inmates from breaking rules, fighting and making false claims against corrections officers. (image/Axon)

“You have a tool that can help you get to the truth,” said Richard Roy, consultant and retired New York State Department of Corrections deputy commissioner/inspector general and chief of investigations. “That’s the bottom line of any investigation, whether it is looking into staff or inmate behaviors.”

Historically, correctional facilities have used fixed video cameras to seek the truth but with limited success. This is because fixed cameras have blind spots and don’t record audio. At the same time, fixed cameras can be expensive to install due to the need to build camera mounts and run cable conduits to their locations.

“In contrast, bodycams don’t have blind spots and everything that’s happening in front of the officer is being recorded, including audio, which gives you a better context of what’s happening,” said Jeffrey Beard, consultant and retired secretary of the California and Pennsylvania departments of corrections. “Bodycams are also quicker and cheaper to deploy, because you don’t need all that infrastructure.”

How bodycams can improve outcomes

People generally behave better when they know that others can see what they’re doing. As a result, the presence of bodycams recording what actually happens can deter inmates from breaking rules, fighting and making false claims against officers. They can also deter COs from using undue or excessive force on the job.

Beard recounts a conversation with an inmate during a recent visit to a state correctional facility where bodycams are in use:

“The inmate replied that the officers tend to now practice de-escalation techniques more than they did in the past,” he said, “so the inmate recognized that the officers were behaving better. So were the inmates, because nobody really likes to be caught on film doing something that they shouldn’t be doing.”

In addition to fewer complaints, reducing the number of physical altercations in a correctional facility means fewer medical expenses for treating injured inmates and fewer sick days and workers’ compensation claims for injured staff.

“Bodycam video will deter frivolous filings, grievances and complaints,” said Beard, “and when lawsuits do occur, they will be easier to investigate. There’s going to be money saved as a result.”

How bodycams can improve accountability

Because bodycam video (and audio) shows what actually happened during an incident, these tools make it easier for corrections facility managers to find out who did what.

“The camera documents what happened so you can hold staff and inmates accountable,” said Roy. “You can use it as evidence in a disciplinary hearing or criminal case, if necessary.”

Bodycam video also improves accountability and promotes a sense of fairness and transparency in an otherwise closed and controlled environment.

“Whether it’s against the inmates or a staff member who was doing something that’s inappropriate, people have to be held accountable,” said Beard. “Bodycam video allows you to do that in a much more transparent way than when you just go in and have one group saying one thing and another group saying another.”

Bodycam video can also be used for training and performance review purposes.

“The video that you get from the bodycams can be used for training: ‘Look how good of a job this person did de-escalating this situation,’ or, ‘Here’s some problems that we observed in another situation – what could have been done better there to handle that situation?’” said Beard. “I think the importance of using the bodycam video for training simply can’t be overestimated.”

Useful in even limited deployments

Even if your facility cannot afford to equip all COs with body-worn cameras, deploying a limited number of bodycams can still improve outcomes and enhance accountability.

“There’s a lot of specialized uses of bodycams that can make a difference,” said Beard. “For instance, a lot of times in our restricted housing units where we hold disciplinary cases or in mental health units, there are questions about how staff are responding and how things are being handled, and using bodycams in those specialized units can help provide transparency and help answer those questions.”

Bodycams can likewise be useful in managing K-9 team complaints and investigating prisoner transport issues, as well as record what happens during a cell extraction and keep an eye on visiting rooms to make sure everyone is acting appropriately.

Accessing the video easily

For effective legal use, bodycam video means must be easy to store, access and be easily cross-referenced with fixed camera footage and other evidence to support accurate, efficient investigations.

This is where Axon comes to the fore with its cloud-based video storage system for bodycams and its Axon Evidence (aka Evidence.com) website for Axon users.

“The advantage of having incident video stored in the cloud is that managers can look at that video before they even go out to investigate the incident,” said Beard. “Meanwhile, Evidence.com allows you to access videos of a specific incident captured by multiple bodycams and fixed cameras and download them as one file, making going from one camera view to another simple and fast.”

The bottom line

Bodycams are a cost-effective problem-solver for correctional facilities. They can make life safer and calmer for everyone inside an institution, while also saving money due to fewer physical injuries, less property damage and reduced inmate lawsuits.

“I know that if I were still a secretary in a state, I certainly would be looking at putting them in,” said Beard, “particularly in certain specialized areas and even a wider deployment as I moved forward with it.”

For a successful bodycam program, it is vital that correctional facilities have clear, detailed policies governing all aspects of bodycam footage access and review, and facility staff need to understand the policy and procedures and be trained in how to use the tools, says Roy.

“If you don’t hold them accountable and you allow them to shut the cameras off when they should be on, then you’re almost wasting your time,” said Roy. “However, I think most agencies realize that, work through it, and have effective policies that staff can follow so it works for everybody involved. If people step over the line, it’s going to be documented. If people do the right thing and comply, that’s going to be documented, too.”

For more information, visit Axon.

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

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