About three year ago I wrote an article predicting that some private security officers would soon start using body cameras and that the practice would become common place in the private security industry just as it is becoming commonplace in public law enforcement. I was right but I was also wrong.
In the United States, state and local law enforcement agencies have overwhelmingly embraced body camera for their officers. They see body cameras as one way to build community trust, provide verifiable evidence following confrontations with citizens, and hold officers accountable.
Spurred largely by a number of well publicized and controversial shootings, roughly half of all state and local police agencies now equip officers with some sort of body cameras. Most agencies that have not yet employed body cameras are seriously considering doing so. I think I can confidently predict that it won’t be long before body cameras for state and local law enforcement officers become the standard. In fact, some states like Nevada and North Carolina, now require it as a matter of law.
Body Cameras in Private Security
Some private security companies have equipped their officers with body cameras but the industry as a whole has been slow to embrace it. Why is this so? The simple answer is: Money and Necessity.
With emerging technology, the cost of equipping security officers with body cameras is becoming more affordable but it is not insignificant. Many public law enforcement agencies offset some of this cost by grant funds but these funds are not available to private security firms. Additionally, the cost of video storage and management are ongoing costs that usually end up costing more than the initial cost of the cameras.
Unlike public law enforcement agencies, private security firms exist solely to make a profit. Most security firms do not see how the costs associated with equipping officers with body cameras will improve their bottom-line.
Body cameras can be a valuable training tool to teach officers appropriate conflict resolution and de-escalation techniques with real situations but as law enforcement has learned, it is not sufficient to just give an officer a body camera and tell the officer to go out and use it. Policies on the use of the cameras (when the camera should be turned on or off, when to inform individuals that they are being recorded, how to upload data, etc.) should be established and officers should be trained to the policy. Spending time training officers is a cost that many private security firms do not see a benefit of investing in. It is a sad commentary, but many (perhaps most) security firms only give their officers a modicum of training to the extent that is required by local or state regulatory agencies.
Countless suits and internal affairs complaints are filed against law enforcement officers every year. With the evidence provided by body cameras, false or frivolous claims can be more easily dismissed and in cases of misconduct, liability can be limited by taking appropriate personnel action and settling cases quickly.
Private security officers are not immune from civil suits, but because of the nature of their job, they are much less frequent. Statistically police use physical force in very few encounters. Studies conducted by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) and the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) show that among persons who had contact with police, less than 2% had force used or threatened against them during their most recent contact.
Studies on how frequently private security officers use physical force really do not exist. But because most security officers are not involved in making daily arrests and because many security firms have a “hands-off” policy, false arrest and related claims against security officers are diminutive. Because of this, evidence provided from body cameras have a very limited ability to mitigate legal liability from infrequent force or false arrest claims.
Invasion of privacy exposure
Many security firms are actually concerned that evidence from body cameras could increase their overall liability. Many security firms have liability concerns over Invasion of Privacy claims and feel that body camera video can often be detrimental to the defense, rather than exculpatory.
Law enforcement has taken the viewpoint that if an officer acted professionally and within law and policy, body camera footage will shut down or settle claims more quickly and reduce defense costs.
Many private security firms have a different viewpoint. Many private security managers know that they give their officers minimal training and they know that some of the officers they hire have limited skills and abilities. Body cameras cannot combat poor training or unskilled guards. In fact, they can increase liability, making it easier for negligent or incorrect acts to be discovered and proven.
An article published in Security Management, a publication of ASIS International (formerly known as American Society for Industrial Security), put it adeptly by saying: “Assuming a guard is well trained and acts appropriately, video footage will help insurers assess claims quickly and accurately, possibly reducing the number of frivolous excessive force claims.”
Well trained and acts appropriately are the key words. Unfortunately, many security managers know that their guards are not well trained and may not act appropriately when it comes to interacting with angry, disgruntled or violent persons, criminal suspects, or persons who are intoxicated or “high” on drugs. This is why many security firms have a “hands-off” policy where they instruct their officers to simply watch and report but take no physical action against anyone. If a situation gets out of hand or becomes violent, some security companies actually tell their officers to just run away and call 911.
Understanding the roll of private security
Understanding the use of body cameras by private security officers requires an understanding of the fundamental roll of private security. Law enforcement exists to serve the public and private security exists solely to serve the private interests of whoever hires them. In many cases, because of the tasks private security officers are often hired for (watchman, visual deterrence, customer service, projecting a sense or illusion of security, etc.) there is no benefit of equipping them with body cameras.
In other cases when a security officer’s job involves interacting with persons suspected of committing crimes (i.e., shoplift apprehension) and taking enforcement actions, body cameras can be of benefit to the employer -but only if the security firm has good body camera policies and procedures and has invested the time and money to train their officers appropriately.