Police Officers and Video Cameras: Communication Skills Are Your First Line of Defense

By Jean Reynolds

When police officers hear the word “protection,” they immediately think about weapons. Or, more accurately, that’s what officers used to think about. Nowadays officers are increasingly having to worry about protecting themselves from authorized videotaping.

The problem goes beyond the surveillance cameras that many communities have installed in public places. Thanks to recent advances in technology, many citizens carry cell phones with video capability–and they don’t hesitate to make video recordings of police officers at work, often in chaotic situations where excessive noise and awkward camera angles can preserve a distorted record of what was said or done.

Legal experts are still arguing about whether officers are Constitutionally protected from unauthorized videotaping. A recent LA Times article (November 8, 2011) notes that a number of judges have affirmed citizens’ right to videotape police actions without consent.

The problems are obvious. In years past, juries often sided with officers in he-said/she-said disputes between officers and citizens. Today that advantage is rapidly disappearing, and many agencies are starting to worry about liability issues. Is there anything that officers can do to protect themselves?

Criminal justice experts suggest the following guidelines can go a long way to head off liability problems arising from citizen videotaping:

1. Always identify yourself immediately as a police officer.

2. Speak clearly and courteously, avoiding inflammatory slang and street talk.

3. Use positive words like “cooperate” and “protect” whenever possible.

4. Describe what you’re doing and why.

These simple steps can go a long way toward protecting you from charges of prejudice, unprofessional behavior, and excessive force.

Suppose, for example, that you’re trying to handcuff a suspect who’s resisting arrest. A videotape showing that you grabbed and pulled her hands might trigger an investigation. But if your voice can be heard on the recording asking her to extend her hands, you have documentation that you followed your agency’s procedures.

Lengthy explanations are usually unnecessary. Often a simple statement like “I’m here to restore order” or “I’ll take your statements one at a time” can establish your professionalism. Addressing citizens as “sir” and “ma’am,” even if you consider them suspects, can help you maintain order and, in some cases, prevent a violent outburst.

The old stereotype of a police officer who acts first and asks questions later is being replaced by a new model: A professional officer who thinks before acting, follows procedures carefully, and strives to meet high standards for professionalism. Effective communication skills are an important component in that model–and a strong ally when you’re trying to maintain order in a stressful situation while a citizen is videotaping you.

Jean Reynolds, Ph.D. is Professor Emeritus at Polk State College, where she taught report writing and communication skills in the criminal justice program. She is the author of seven books, including “Police Talk” (Pearson), cowritten with the late Mary Mariani. Go to http://amzn.com/0578082942 for information about her book “The Criminal Justice Guide to Report Writing for Officers.”

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