Body Worn Camera (BWC) programs can only be effective if police officers actually turn them on during citizen encounters, and by that measure, the NOPD’s BWC program is arguably one of the most effective in the country. New internal audit numbers show that NOPD officers consistently turned their cameras on for citizen encounters in nearly every instance they were required to do so in 2016.
The NOPD voluntarily launched its BWC program in May 2014. At the time, it was one of the largest rollouts of the technology by a law enforcement agency in the country. To go along with using the cameras, the department implemented performance measures to track how officers are using the cameras in the field, as well as a detailed policy involving how the videos of critical incidents captured by these cameras can be released to the public.
NOPD’s Compliance Bureau uses a scoring system to grade officers each month on their use of the cameras.
“What we started off doing was taking a trip sheet, which is a daily activity report, from every officer who worked on a certain day of the month,” said Deputy Chief Danny Murphy, who leads the department’s Compliance Bureau. “We'd look at their activities that required video be taken and see if a video existed for that activity. That activity would then be computed into a score.”
Not only does the department receive an overall score, Murphy said, but each district and its platoons receive a score as well.
“It's a pinpointed assessment of compliance with the body worn camera policy, mainly turning on the cameras when they should be activated,” he said. “Most other police departments that use body worn cameras, as far as I know, don't do this. The ones that do may have slightly different ways of how they measure, but they aren’t seeing the compliance rates that we are.”
The audits conducted thus far show an extremely high percentage of NOPD officers properly using the cameras when required, Murphy said.
“We started off in the 80-percent range in terms of percentage of having it turned on at the proper time,” he said. “Using the measurements and giving those measurements to leadership so they can hold everyone accountable, we've seen consistent and steady increases to the point where we've been at around 97-99 percent in compliance for more than a year now. That's above and beyond what we've heard of in other departments.”
The system has garnered the NOPD national attention, as department officials recently presented the program at a national conference on the use of body-worn cameras in law enforcement.
“The grant distributors from the Federal government routinely note that we’re far out ahead of other departments in this practice,” Murphy said. “They've asked us for our policy model, they've asked us to demonstrate on webinars, at the national conference and at other conferences. We're definitely a leader on that front.”
Strong Process in Place For Reviewing and Releasing Footage
Murphy said that while having the body-worn cameras and footage are just part of the program, what the department does with the footage is another vital part of the process.
The department mandates reviews on body-worn camera footage involving possible uses of force, complaints of misconduct or situations where injuries occur, Murphy said. However, random reviews are also enacted by supervisors to check in on how their officers are using the cameras.
“It gives supervisors another great tool to see what's really going on and provides greater insight into how their officers are performing,” Murphy said of the random checks. “It can also provide supervisors a chance to give ether positive feedback or constructive criticism on how an officer can improve in using the cameras.”
Addressing footage that may capture a critical use of force by a police officer, such as an officer-involved shooting, the department in 2016 laid out specific guidelines on when and how video would be made publicly available in those situations.
“Our policy is out in front of most other departments,” Murphy said. “In some departments, it seems like when a situation occurs and there’s body-worn camera footage, they're trying to figure out how or when to present that footage. We've already got a plan in place for making that decision about when it is released to the public, and that plan is very transparent. “
Having such a detailed policy helps to make the NOPD a leader in body-worn camera usage, Murphy said.
“That's why people come to us for the policies – how to discipline when officers aren't using the cameras, how to assess if the cameras are working, how to have supervisors look at the video and how to use the videos on a big picture systematic scale,” he said. “It's such a valuable resource that I honestly don't think has been fully mined yet. We're doing everything we can to utilize them in the most impactful way possible. Supervisors can use it to help their officers be the best that they can be, while we at the department-wide level look at how we can use it to make sure we're operating across the board and up to the standards we set for ourselves.”
Murphy said that having the cameras also helps to bolster cases as they are given to the District Attorney’s office, whether for the sake of prosecuting offenders or in defending the actions of officers.
“The fact that this gives the District Attorney's office access to footage from a scene where we responded is huge,” he said. “These can serve as incredible pieces of evidence for them. In the past, you had to envision what happened on scenes from a written account or a witness testimony, which can oftentimes take place weeks, months or years after the incident occurred. With this video, cases can come back to the moment where they actually happened. While the body worn camera can't give you a full perspective on what everyone saw, it provides an objective view of what was happening from one or multiple viewpoints.”
Videos Used in Police Training
Having a large catalog of video from incidents gives the NOPD a great tool in evolving how it assesses officers’ performance in the field, as well as to pinpoint work on specific calls for service. The videos are being used as teachable moments in training sessions for both new recruits and veteran officers.
“We can look at specific types of instances - domestic violence cases, traffic stops, mental health calls, etc.,” he said. “The footage is there. This gives us a higher level of insight into how we're performing across the board. We’re going to cycle through different focus areas that can help us to bring a more precise approach as to how we are complying with the consent decree and how we're operating as a department in general.”