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Police car video as an administrative tool

Matthew Newman

The most compelling reasons for having video cameras in police cars are to help increase convictions, reduce liability lawsuits and settle citizen complaints. Video can also be an extremely valuable tool in helping administrators identify areas where officer safety training may need to be enhanced or monitor adherence to department policy. 

The application of police car video as an administrative tool is somewhat controversial, but there are legitimate reasons to use it for that purpose. What comes to mind is sitting in a room with a department administrator watching a video from a pursuit that took place in the mid-evening hours. The video we were watching was from a car that had joined the pursuit as the fifth car back. What was disturbing to the administrator was the fact that the patrol car was travelling in excess of 100 miles an hour through a residential neighborhood. 

As a former law enforcement officer, I realize the importance of catching the bad guy and in this case I don’t know why they were pursing this individual, but the administrator sat there next to me shaking his head and remarked that his department would be receiving some safe pursuit driving instruction in the very near future. In this case the video, being used as an administrative tool, was both correct and effective. Such video can also be used as a training tool to remind officers to be more mindful of their surroundings, as they pursue the fleeing suspect. 

The other side to this discussion is the use of video in disciplinary settings, such as the case where an officer sped past his neighbor’s house. There was some personal animosity between them and the officer knew that speeding past the house antagonized the neighbor. When the neighbor complained to the department, the citizen’s frustration grew because the officer simply denied the allegations and the department didn’t have any reason to doubt the officer. After several such complaints a supervisor was stationed in the area for a couple of days to catch the officer in the act. 

If the above department had deployed the right type of in-car camera system they could have set the speed recording trigger to initiate a recording every time the officer exceeded a certain speed. The administrator could then have the appropriate conversation with the officer and resolve the citizen’s complaint. For some camera systems such changes to the car’s individual configuration can be made from the administrator’s work console and implemented without the officer’s knowledge; at least until the recording suddenly starts. Speaking to the officer prior to making the change in the system would inform him that the behavior in question was being investigated. Simply knowing the department has put this measure in place may deter the suspected behavior from happening in the future. 

These and other innovations built into some of the available camera systems can assist police administrators to effectively manage adherence to department policy and promote community trust and confidence, while helping answer the need for public accountability. Mobile video systems have saved millions of dollars in frivolous lawsuits while saving countless officers grief, humiliation and even their jobs from unfounded complaints. 

Patrol cars become an officer’s office, apartment and sanctuary. An officer needs to be able to close the patrol car doors and let off a little steam without the fear of anyone else ever hearing or watching it. It is important for the peace of mind of the officers that they trust that the in-car video systems will never be used as a means to harass, embarrass or spy on those who are simply trying their best to do a tough job and return home safely at the end of the day. It is also important they remember that cameras are instrumental in weeding out officers who are wearing the badge that shouldn’t be. 

The controversy will continue as video systems begin to implement the ability to live-stream video from the car to a desktop computer. AVL may be another controversial feature to mention, and both of these can be associated with officer safety versus Big Brother. Such capability needs to be carefully executed, but more and more communities are asking their police departments to install in-car video systems, so it is becoming a part of law enforcement life. People on both sides of the issue need to work out the policies in the best interest of all concerned -- administration, officers on the street and the public they serve. Overall, the value in terms of officer safety, resolution of complaints and reduction of litigation far outweighs the cost of implanting in-car video. 

Matthew Newman, a former police officer, is a senior field application engineer for Digital Safety Technologies. He can be reached at:

mnewman@digitalsafetytech.com