Police Using Body Cam Videos to Improve Public Perception


Police are using body cam videos to improve their public perception. One chief referred to a video he distributed as something “… out of Hollywood” in an effort to steer their image favorably.

Thomas J. Wydra, the police chief of Hamden, Conn., has seen plenty of disturbing body-camera recordings depicting officers committing misconduct. Last month, he decided to throw a more uplifting video into the mix, reported The New York Times.

It showed one of his officers in a heart-pounding act of rescue. Called to a nursing home because of a troubled resident, the officer chased the man up several flights of stairs and onto a sixth-floor balcony. Just as the man hoisted a leg over the edge, the officer pulled him back to safety.

“It was like out of Hollywood,” said Chief Wydra. He distributed the video to news organizations and posted it on Facebook and Twitter.

Body worn cameras have expanded around the country as law enforcement responds to mounting pressure. Yet those working in the business know the evidence will demonstrate what the public largely takes for granted; heroic actions in difficult circumstances.

So while the public has called for sweeping change and accountability, they will also discover cops in action in a way Hollywood tries to mimic. As more police departments have adopted the cameras, they have also begun to cannily take advantage of a tool that they once distrusted. They are releasing video clips of officers carrying out impromptu acts of heroism.

This month in Topeka, Kan., for instance, the Chief Kris Kramer made public a stunning body-camera recording showing an officer wading into a pond and rescuing a small boy from drowning.

The video showed Officer Aaron Bulmer, jumping into a pond and rescuing a child with autism who had wandered away from his father.

“Recruiting new police officers has become more challenging in light of the numerous high-profile negative stories around the country in the last few years concerning law enforcement,” Chief Kramer said in an email. “A little good news can also help with public confidence and morale as well.”

In Norton, Ohio, back in January, two officers carried a man out of a burning car moments before it exploded, an event also captured in a body-camera recording.

And in January of last year, a video from Albuquerque showed an officer finding a crying child who had been abandoned in a parking lot hours earlier. As he picked her up and soothed her — “Hi, sweetheart, you O.K.?” — his body-worn camera continued to roll.

Unfortunately, police feel the need to compete for their reputation; one that has been sullied by critics of the institution of law.

In promoting videos recorded on the very sort of body-worn cameras that have documented episodes of police misconduct, law enforcement officials say they are trying to use the positive images as a counterbalance.

Policies on the release of police videos vary widely across the nation and remain a matter of intense debate. Critics say the practice of releasing selected recordings — but not all of them — threatens to create a falsely upbeat narrative about police conduct without full transparency.

But law enforcement officials say the positive videos accurately highlight moments that have too often been overlooked: when officers do something brave and unexpected, daring and heartwarming.

“Did I think the release of this video would help our image? Absolutely,” Chief Wydra said. “It’s important for police chiefs to worry about their brand, worry about their image and worry about how they’re viewed by the public.”

In Norton, a suburb of Akron, a local news outlet heard about the episode in which officers pulled a man from a burning car, and they asked the police chief for the video. The chief, John Dalessandro, emailed it to the media and waited for it to go viral.

“We wanted to show the different side of law enforcement,” Chief Dalessandro said. “It depicts the officers as human, the human side of the badge.”

According to the Police Executive Research Forum in Washington, more than half of medium to large police departments around the country have adopted or are testing body-worn cameras.

Yet policies on release vary from state to state.

In some states, like Kansas and North Carolina, laws have been enacted to shield body-camera videos from public consumption by exempting them from open records laws in most cases.

Some police officials said they had sharpened their publicity and marketing skills with the advent of positive body-camera videos. They take long recordings and edit them down into quick, digestible clips that are more likely to be watched and shared. They post the clips on their department Facebook page and Twitter feed.

Michael J. Chitwood, the sheriff of Volusia County, said he released every video he could, both negative and positive, in the hope of gaining public trust.

“I think in today’s climate, when we look at Ferguson and South Carolina, every progressive police leader would be out of their mind to say we don’t need these things,” he said. “The good far outweighs the bad.”

(Feature image courtesy Hamden Police Body Cam screenshot)


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