When it comes to body cams and dash cams, don’t rely on the video alone to tell your side of the story. Your verbal narration as the action unfolds can be a critical component of what the device records, advises Dep. Chief William Mazur of the Atlantic City (NJ) PD.
Mazur is an instructor with the Force Science course on Body Cameras & Other Recordings in Law Enforcement. He spoke with Force Science News recently after a presentation to the class at the Force Science Research & Training Center in Chicago.
Where it’s practical to do so, supplying a running commentary on your perceptions and actions while the camera is on can help maximize the benefit of that equipment during the contact, Mazur explains.
“This can be especially important in search-and-seizure and use-of-force situations,” he says. “By narrating what you’re experiencing and what’s motivating your actions, you can provide a strong foundation for reasonable suspicion and probable cause.
“Officers usually articulate this information after the incident, when they’re writing their report. But if you articulate critical details as you go along–what you’re seeing and feeling, what you’re thinking–and then back it up with your report, the case becomes more of a slam dunk.”
“ARTICULATING YOUR MINDSET”
Typically, officers may build their PC silently, mentally noting that “something’s wrong here” from such things as the distinctive smell of burnt marijuana on a vehicle stop, evasive or inconsistent answers during a field interview, pre-attack cues in a confrontation with a hostile subject, resistive tension in a potentially combative arrestee, and so on. Mazur suggests stating aloud (and thus contemporaneously recording) the important indicators you’re aware of; “articulating your mindset,” he terms it, so your actions are better understood.
His department has been advocating this in training for about 18 months, he says. Most officers who were skeptical in the beginning have become enthusiastic converts.
“It takes practice to retrain your brain to automatically and comfortably narrate,” Mazur says. And it’s important to stay flexible. “There may be times when you don’t want a subject to hear what you’re thinking or seeing. Then you may be able to go to your patrol car or step out of earshot to record what’s in your mind.
“You don’t have to speak long paragraphs or use perfect grammar. Just a few words–even one word (‘Gun!’)–can be helpful.
“Sometimes the camera doesn’t capture everything, and the voice articulation may cover what’s missing in the video. On the other hand, there may be gaps, distortions, or confused chronology in an officer’s memory after a highly stressful incident and contemporaneous narration may straighten out those lapses.”
As a part of training, his department will be hosting frequent updates and interactive debriefs from local prosecutors on case law and other legal developments so that officers thoroughly understand on a practical level the elements to emphasize in recorded articulation for proper policing. “This is especially effective for officers when they can pose hypothetical questions and scenarios and get prosecutors’ guidance,” Mazur says.
“The narration concept is in its early stages, but it will continue to grow,” he believes. “It creates a mind-set picture for people who are judging an officers’ actions, and in most cases it will show that officers are doing things right.”
Mazur touched on another body cam development from Atlantic City during his class presentation. Late last year, a middle-aged male complained that he had been assaulted by ACPD officers during an arrest, alleging that one officer banged his head several times against a vehicle.
Body camera footage reviewed during investigations by the department’s IA unit and the county prosecutors Official Corruption Unit “showed that was not even remotely like what actually happened,” Mazur says. “In fact, the suspect had threatened one of the officers and had directed racial slurs at him.”
Consequently, the complainant has been charged and indicted for marking false reports to law enforcement officers, an offense that carries a possible penalty of 18 months’ incarceration upon conviction. Trial is pending at this writing.
Mazur says: “This is clear evidence that when you conduct yourself appropriately and you have a body-worn camera, you can have an independent, impartial, and objective witness to support your account of the circumstances.”
Dep. Chief Mazur can be contacted at: WMazur@acpolice.org.