Washington, DC — A cash-starved Forest Service law enforcement program bought more than 500 recording devices designed to be worn on officers’ clothing without field testing the equipment, according to documents released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Officers are finding the cameras too unwieldy to wear regularly, yet the agency has made no follow-up inquiries or analysis. In August 2012, Forest Service Law Enforcement and Investigations (LE&I) purchased 527 Personal Video Recording Devices (PVRDs) for $94,483 or $179 per device. In response to a PEER Freedom of Information Act request about the purchase LE&I admitted that it had conducted –
- No field testing of the equipment it purchased or comparison with other devices. Nor could it locate any feasibility analyses or purchase justifications prior to buying the videos in bulk;
- No training of LE&I personnel in the proper or effective use of PVRDs; and
- No follow-up reviews as to whether officers were actually using the devices and to what effect.
“This is another case of boys with toys – LE&I leadership making clueless equipment purchases seemingly on a whim,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that by contrast police departments in cities such as Rialto, California are conducting detailed field testing prior to deploying recording devices. “Cameras have some valid law enforcement uses but LE&I has no plan, no training, no goals and no idea what it is doing with these recording devices.”
The PVRD episode is reminiscent of LE&I purchasing drones that have never left their hangar. Even as it faces a sudden budget reduction of roughly 15% from last’s year’s levels, LE&I has recently bought other equipment without field input, such as military-style Toughbook computers, new Tasers and holsters.
In a survey by PEER this month, LE&I personnel complained about the PVRDs as part of a pattern of questionable equipment purchases:
- “The wearable body camera is the latest boondoggle… I got a camera the size of a smartphone that is still in the box and I doubt I will ever use it. Why not test several different models and get feedback from the field? Lots of agencies do this with major purchases.”
- “They are very bulky and not easy to use. Not very many of the LEOs use these so it’s pretty much a waste of money.”
- “They have been nothing but problematic and simply don’t work. In fact, few officers will even use them. They are a very cheap brand, the batteries won’t hold a charge, and they are large and bulky.”
Nonetheless in September 2013, the Forest Service adopted a manual section on the PVRDs which provides that “As a matter of routine, officers are encouraged to record their contacts with the public and other situations where their training and experience leads them to believe it could be beneficial.” While LE&I provided no information about potential privacy concerns officers are warned that they must “be aware of their particular state notification requirements (privacy laws) in advance of operating a PVRD.”
Perhaps the biggest barrier to their use is the retaliatory culture inside LE&I. Officers are afraid that managers will use digital images as a means to punish them. The manual addresses this point in saying “Video recordings retained by an officer will not be routinely or randomly reviewed for the purpose of monitoring an officer’s performance.” That assurance has not dampened officer fears, however.
“Since LE&I has not integrated camera use into legitimate law enforcement activities, officers are rightly concerned that the recordings will be used for ‘gotcha’ exercises,” Ruch added, pointing to the manual section that states “Recordings used or shown for the purpose of ridicule or embarrassing any employee are prohibited.” “The source of embarrassment for the Forest Service is not what is recorded but the fact that the recording devices are a white elephant.”