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Police departments’ increasing use of body cameras to document their encounters with the public will ultimately reduce public entities’ potential liability, experts maintain, although it is still too early to find hard evidence of this.
While video evidence can be used to prove police wrongdoing, they anticipate its effect on behavior will ultimately lead to less use of force by both police and the public, experts say.
There are complicated issues concerning their use, however, including when the cameras should be turned on; data storage costs; the police and public’s privacy and the adequacy of training. The video evidence can also be ambiguous, experts say.
Incidents recorded on video have been frequently in the news, including a March incident where an unarmed young man’s shooting death in his grandmother’s backyard in Sacramento, California, was captured on video.
The evidence to date is unclear. A study involving 2,224 District of Columbia police officers released in October concluded body cameras’ effectiveness in reducing the use of force by police and the public did not rise to the level of “statistical significance.”
But an oft-cited study of the Rialto, California, police department published in 2013 concluded body cameras reduced the use of force by police by 50%.
Experts say they believe bodycams’ value will eventually be established.
Sandra McFarland, New York-based senior vice president and public entity placement specialist for Marsh L.L.C., said: “I don’t think it’s going to save them in premiums, but I think it will save them, ultimately, in total cost of risk.”
“When police officers know they’re being recorded, and perpetrators know they’re being recorded, we would anticipate a change in behavior for the better,” despite the Washington study’s findings.
“It’s common sense,” she said.
“It seems bodycams would help,” said Nina Markoutsis, Dallas-based claims manager for XL Group Ltd., which does business as XL Catlin. “It would get the whole story out quicker and more comprehensively. We don’t run the risk of getting an inaccurate presentation of the facts that would come from a more biased person,” she said.
But video evidence is not necessarily definitive, observers warn.
Kenny Smith, Denver-based risk control manager for OneBeacon Insurance Group Ltd. government risks business, said video “gets a lot of the physical characteristics of what was going on, but the bodycams just don’t do a very good job of capturing emotion, the subtle cues that law enforcement officers are trained to pick up on.”
“They just don’t have the same acuity as our eyesight,” Mr. Smith said. “We see in 3D. In a lot for respects, the camera is very much in 1D, maybe 2D at best. We’re just limited on what information is going to be picked up.”
Data retention is an issue as well. Questions include how long records should be maintained, where and, in particular, its cost.
Ashley Bonner, Atlanta-based senior risk consultant at Trident Public Risk Solutions, a unit of the Argo Group International Holdings Ltd., said the “average police department has about 52,000 hours per year of time on video,” which “equates to nearly six years of data storage for a single year, so you can see how that can get prohibitively expensive.”
Police agencies should keep videos “three years to be on the conservative side to protect themselves,” said Ms. Bonner.
A periodic review of the footage is also highly recommended, she said. “One wants to have at least some kind of schedule to do a review and see what’s going on.” If a police officer gets on the witness stand, “when the plaintiff attorney asks, ‘How often do your view these videos?’ one doesn’t want to respond in the negative,” because that could give rise to charges of negligence, Ms. Bonner said.
Privacy issues are also a factor. It is not an issue if the video is shot in a public place, but it is if it is in a private residence, said Mark Goode, Charlotte, North Carolina-based managing director of Willis Towers Watson P.L.C.’s pubic entity practice.
Another concern is if it captures minors on video, which raises a “whole different set of requirements related to privacy there,” Mr. Goode said. In addition, municipalities could become subject to liability if there is a cyber attack and the information disappears, he said.
While it is clearly not necessary to record a police officer’s wife asking him to bring home a bottle of milk, there is otherwise no consensus as to when the camera should be switched on or off.