Body cameras don’t provide ‘movie’ view of incident

Before you electronically horsewhip a police officer whose body-worn camera wasn’t activated while he was running toward the sound of automatic gunfire during the Oct. 1 massacre, consider the reliability and limitations of the body-worn camera.

I don’t know if the body-worn camera malfunctioned or if the officer merely forgot to push a button during the heat of battle. I do know that fine-motor skills, such as being able to push a small button, diminish greatly with the surge of adrenaline. Personally, I would probably have touched the activation button twice, not remembering I had activated it, thus turning it off with the second touch. I do not care if the officer missed the button or forgot to touch it, and you shouldn’t care either.

Most body-worn cameras are on a 30-second continuous loop. This means the camera is constantly recording video and restarting every 30 seconds. This is why the first 30 seconds of police video usually have no audio.

The field of view of a body-worn camera is not the same as the human’s field of view, and furthermore, the body-worn camera doesn’t swivel like the human head. The view is also two-dimensional, unlike real life. Depending on the officer’s placement of the body-worn camera, the view may be obstructed during the officer’s actions.

The video will not be a steady, scripted, high-definition movie with conflict and romance, much to the chagrin of the population who has watched every “CSI,” “NCIS,” “Law &Order” and “Southland” episode, thus making them seasoned street officers. The video may show nothing because everything is out of view of the limited field of vision, or it could be a cacophonic compilation of chaotic mayhem with unintelligible dialogue. In other words, real life in the police world.

In one instance, the public was outraged that a video indicated that an officer may have unnecessarily used deadly force. Fortunately, a second video captured the suspect aiming a firearm at another officer, thus proving the use of deadly force was justified.

A recent UNLV study concluded that body-worn cameras resulted in fewer complaints against the police and fewer cases of police misconduct primarily because of the more effective way of resolving complaints. Imagine that. While most social media videos of police encounters start after officers use arrest and control techniques, the police body-worn camera normally begins 30 seconds before the encounter and captures the actions of the suspects before force is applied. However, social media video is instant, if not live, and police policy may delay the publicizing of the police video.

The body-worn camera, just like its dash-cam video forefathers, may not always capture the actions and words of every detail of an incident, such as the Oct. 1 massacre or someone acting like a jerk in a crosswalk.

The body-worn camera is not a panacea to fixing whatever the recent popular criticism of police is at the moment, but its effectiveness with resolving complaints of misconduct or brutality is worth the startup and memory storage costs.

If you haven’t faced the terror of being outgunned, you won’t understand the likelihood of forgetting or being unable to touch a small button while running into a huge nightmare.

Dan Jennings is a 38-year law enforcement veteran. He can be reached at

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