Law enforcement is undergoing a revolution of micro-analysis. Video and social media have become a two edged sword. On the one hand it is a force for fostering professionalism and accountability, but on the other a nightmare of administration and potentially dangerous misinformation. While employing body cameras may seem like an effective new tool for law enforcement, it may not be the answer to everything we think it is. Agency administrators must wrangle with how to afford and assimilate its yet to be discovered impact and legality into everyday operations.
The biggest challenge to police in this new environment is the immediacy of broadcast - the premature airing of video (going viral) that can create as much or more misinformation than what the whole situation may be. It could be the equivalent of falsely yelling "fire" in a crowded room. It is important for administrators to have ready disclaimers advising viral video viewers to exercise caution and NOT jump to conclusions. However, it will be equally incumbent for agencies to initiate processes that can address questionable situations involving video with due diligence and speed. Analysis of any video must include the totality of circumstance, and not just what is captured on video. It must include what happened before, during from a broader perspective, and after the video capture. Therefore the importance of keeping the video secured for proper analysis, and not released early to satisfy demands from the media or special interest groups.
The officer and first line supervisor on the other hand, must wrestle with the how, when, where, and why to use it in a volatile and unpredictable work environment. It's easy to say if you are doing your job properly then the camera should not be a concern. However, doing a police officer's job right and the public's (lay person) perception may not be the same.
Cameras could be a distraction in some situations that could be deadly if not done right. An officer has to keep his or her focus on the subject(s) and surroundings and not worrying about whether the camera is on or properly angled for better recording, etc. A totality of circumstance may impart fear to an officer someone else may not see. There are things an officer may sense in another's demeanor, presence, or actions that may not show up on a video. "Only that force which is necessary" can be very subjective.
To use the word "unarmed" because the offender lacks a weapon can be a misnomer, too. A person of greater size, strength, proclivity for violence, and/or is high on a controlled substance, or trained in the martial arts can be just as dangerous as one with a visible weapon. Once a person engages officer in a physical altercation, then control of the officer's gun becomes part of the mix that could be equally deadly for the officer, too. There are too many examples of officer's killed by their own guns or exercising too much caution or restraint.
Any furtive or unexpected movement from someone behaving irrationally, erratically, or suspiciously, could stimulate autonomic reactions that are difficult to control. Someone refusing to show their hands is one of the most dangerous and misunderstood situations an officer can face. We live in a culture where most must be presumed armed, and the officer may not actually see a weapon, but the reluctant, furtive, or sudden way the person presents their hands - especially if they are holding "anything,"- can leave the officer with a milli-second to decide to shoot or not. A person leaning over in a car as the officer approaches may seem non-threatening to an ordinary citizen, but the officer must consider the driver is reaching for a weapon a real possibility.
In the meantime, efforts must be taken to encourage media outlets to consider a larger perspective, and report matters accordingly. There is the possibility of attempts by some to purposely antagonize offices into pre-orchestrated video scenarios for political or radical agendas. Publicizing social media rants or unverified information doesn't help inform the public as it should be done. It runs the risk of further inflaming an already incendiary situation.
The author, Arthur P. Meister, is a 38 year veteran of law enforcement. He retired from the FBI in 2002, after having served as Chief of the FBI’s National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime, and the Violent Criminal Apprehension Program (ViCAP), in Quantico, Virginia.
Arthur P. Meister