Reality TV… at a whole new level

The recent hot media incidents featuring police body cameras raises a few points of concern. My first and most enduring concern is how naive many police agencies can be about the media and their keen interest in the subject of police body cameras.

Most agencies deal with media daily and have developed familiar relationships with reporters. Despite this police managers struggle to appease the tyranny of special interest groups and overlook the hidden media agendas on the horizon.

Here is a good case in point. The Toronto Police Services Board received a rather in-depth study in September 2016 on its year-long body camera pilot program. A media love-fest began immediately. Radio, newspapers and especially television news bites spoke glowingly about the study, highlighting its positive aspects again and again.

Read beyond the positive excerpts taken by the media and you find a more balanced study which reflects some very disturbing, and even crippling, encumbrances. The report noted, for example, the significant increase in officer down-time, especially at the end of shifts when they had to catalogue their videos. In some cases it took as much as two hours.

Other negative aspects included the expected cost of storing, maintaining, retrieving and cataloguing video. These issues are not minor and the expense is likely to be monumental.

Problems encountered on the street included battery drainage and close quarter recordings blurred with the hyperactivity of an altercation. Sound issues and the psychological effect of officers feeling their discretionary powers were significantly reduced were also concerns. On this last point it was discovered the incidents of arrests and charges increased significantly as cautions dropped. Almost none of this was reported by the media.

The significant budget increase required to roll out the body camera program and reduced cautions should make some folks ask why media folks are so fond of the concept. Most media reports strongly emphasized the positive points with nary a word about the downside.

Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders did voice his concerns but cushioned them with qualifiers that the negative issues were not insurmountable and that he “supported the fundamental concept.”

Most front-line police officers are cautious about getting too close to media folks. This is born from too many scoops obtained at the expense of some poor schmuck copper who thought he was talking “of the record.” Most officers prefer to defer all questions to a higher authority. One wonders how this aspect of a street cop’s personality might skew an accurate analysis of body cameras. Were the testing officers selected for this study of the mindset that new toys are more fun than old toys?

I save the worst to last. The report did not touch on the current obsession with ‘Reality TV.’ Every network in North America and beyond is searching every nook and cranny of society, trying to ‘get real’ with audiences. Shows like COPS and Border Security attract millions of eye-balls and satisfy an insatiable appetite for seeing ‘the real thing.’

Body cameras are a heaven-sent gift to every TV network and visual junky on the Internet. I can not even begin to imagine all the angles a good television producer could come up with but I picture a tsunami of formal Access to Information Requests flooding in to every police agency with body cameras.

With big advertising dollars bankrolling the entire concept I can imagine, even in the simplest form, a request for the footage of every officer patrolling a high crime neighbourhood. The requests would increase exponentially the first time something major happens.

Every muscle flex and nuance of facial expression will be analyzed by arm-chair quarterbacks across the country, of course. The media will be so giddy that executives will need underlings to nail their shoes to the floor to prevent them floating away.

Meanwhile, back at the police station, crime fighting will now take a backseat to fulfilling the numerous requests from media, lawyers and curious citizens with time on their hands. Officers would be wise to take courses on more than video library cataloguing. How about acting lessons? Police colleges take note.

Even if my predictions never come to pass, there is one other factor to consider. The word of an officer will become severely reduced in the courts. At one time the idea of background checks for candidate officers was to ensure they were first and foremost honest. An officer’s credibility in giving viva voce evidence was paramount and not to be compromised.

With the advent of technology one can assume no court in the country will be happy hearing only from an officer. ‘Where’s the video?’

There is, of course, a precedent for my saying this. Many years ago signed statements of confessions for all criminal trials was the accepted norm. Today if you do not have a video confession quite often anything submitted on paper purported to be signed by the accused is simply not believed.

It is not a far stretch in imagining every charge laid in the future will have to be accompanied by video of the incident. And woe betide the officer who can not produce it in stable pristine 1080P. If the capability is there the courts will demand it. If the quality of the video is not perfect it is prime grist for the media to replay endlessly and comment upon with impunity. The officer and his career are of no concern.

Body cameras. Are we ready for this brave new world?