Body-Worn Cameras: Failure to Activate and Improper Deactivation

Not a week goes by when I don’t read about a police department embroiled in controversy because officers failed to activate, or improperly deactivated, their body-worn cameras (BWC) during an officer involved shooting or other type of major incident. Obviously, I don’t have access to all the facts. I have to rely on the limited information provided by media reports. However, I can state this with some certainty. The vast majority of these failures could have been prevented. There are only a few causal factors for failure that occur singularly or in combination:

Policy Failure: BWC policy must be clear on when, during the course of the event, the camera is to be activated and when it is allowable to deactivate. The language should be specific and not be up to interpretation by officers or the public. Activating the BWC as soon as a unit is dispatched to an event or as soon as an officer initiates an event by radio or terminal, should be common practice. This would eliminate all but a small number of “failure-to-activate” incidents. Yes, there can be times when an officer finds themselves in a deadly force or other critical situation with little notice, but these are rare. Policy should acknowledge these rare instances and provide guidance on what to do if they occur.  BWC manufacturers provide auto-activation solutions that can further minimize these exigent activation failures. Policy should be explicit on when the BWCs can be deactivated. BWCs should remain on until a suspect arrives at the detention facility, until an officer clears a call via terminal or radio, or under a very few specific periods of officer inactivity on an event. Officer discretion within BWC policy should be limited. BWC policy should be reviewed at least twice a year and updated as deemed necessary. Lesson learned by the department and other departments around the country, as well as nationally recognized “best practices” should be given consideration for inclusion in policy updates.

Training Failure: Activation of BWCs should be embedded in all aspects of officer training. Activating BWCs during firearms, defensive tactics, and advanced tactical training should be a standard practice. BWCs should be present and utilized in all scenario training, including firearms simulators. BWCs should be used extensively in academy training if the department runs its own academy. BWCs deployed in field training can reinforce proper activation and deactivation practices when the video is reviewed with the officer by the Field Training Officer. Any video recorded during any training can be used for feedback and then deleted from the system if not needed for other purposes such as documentation of training or risk management. BWCs embedded in training reinforces the “muscle memory” function that many officers claim they forget when activation does not occur. Initial officer BWC training should include both knowledge-based and competency-based tests. Knowledge of policy and systems operations must be clearly demonstrated as well as the actual operation of the camera and supporting software. Consideration should also be given to annual recertification training. Documentation of all of this training is critical. It shows that the department has provided proper training and validates that an officer was trained to a defined standard. 

Officer Failure: Simply put, the officer doesn’t activate the BWC in accordance with policy or training. Let’s address activation in accordance with policy first. You cannot blame an officer for failing to activate their BWC if policy is not specific as addressed above. Nor can you be surprised with the result when policy gives them too much discretion. However, officers must be held accountable when they fail to activate in accordance with a well-written policy. Failure to activate or improper deactivation, with mitigating or extenuating circumstances, is much different than intentionally failing to activate or deactivating early. The former circumstance must be dealt with judiciously by the department. The latter is unacceptable under any circumstance and the department must be relentless in taking corrective action. Similarly, failure to activate or improperly deactivate the BWC in accordance with department training must also be addressed. Retraining may be appropriate with consideration given to the same mitigating or extenuating circumstances. Lack of training, however, should never be allowed as an excuse for improper use of the camera. Corrective discipline should be applied if a review of training documentation verifies that the officer was properly trained and demonstrated competency through testing.

Equipment Failure:  BWCs can malfunction, lose power or completely fail. However, all the main manufacturers provide some type of operational indicator(s) for the officer. Proper pre-operational checks combined and awareness on the part of the officer of the BWCs operational status can minimize the chances of a camera not working at a critical moment. Equipment failures must be dealt with immediately and documented by the department. Manufacturers must be held accountable for pervasive or systemic failures.

Department Failure: This is the most frequent and serious of the causal factors. Department failure can be summed up as:

·      failure to develop and update effective BWC policies and procedures;

·      failure to ensure proper training is provided and documented;

·      failure to verify policy and operational compliance through direct supervision and department level monitoring;

·      failure to discipline when appropriate and;

·      failure to maintain the BWC equipment and systems

The primary causal factor of officer failure is usually accompanied with a secondary failure on the part of the department in one of the areas above. It is imperative that the department takes immediate corrective action when non-activation or early deactivation occurs and is detected, regardless of the criticality of the event. Catching these occurrences as quickly as possible and taking immediate remedial action should minimize future failures in all of the causal factors. Finally, when a major incident occurs and there is non-activation or early deactivation of the BWC, the department should ensure that, as part of a formal internal review, all the causal factors are identified, and immediate corrective actions taken. 

Every department that has BWCs deployed must have processes in place to address each of these areas of potential failure. The goal here is to ensure that non-activations or early deactivations become exceptions to practice and not fuel for media speculation or public doubt.