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Retail’s Latest High-Tech Accessory? Body-Worn Cameras

The use of body-worn cameras (BWC) by retail organizations seems likely to grow as technology options for implementation widen and retailers look to recalibrate protection to align with a more threatening store environment. The technology has momentum and even mandates in law enforcement, which has been the primary market to date, but suppliers are starting to see fertile ground in multiple industry verticals, including private prisons, transportation, healthcare, and yes, even retail stores.

It makes sense that retailers are starting to look more closely at body-worn cameras—eager for all innovations that might change the current trajectory of violence and theft that Starbucks just cited as why it is closing sixteen stores and which Kroger listed as a factor pressuring profits. According to data from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the number of aggravated assaults that took place in restaurants increased by 60 percent from 2018 to 2020 and jumped 73 percent at grocery stores.

Violent incidents can have a spiraling effect on the retail industry broadly, suggested by results in a survey by a food-service research firm and cited in a Wall Street Journal report in July. In it, some 44 percent of respondents said they were more fearful to be in public because of unruly behavior and rising violence, up from 39 percent in March. For retail businesses that rely on the lure of the shopping or dining experience, this is a troubling trend.

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Lisa LaBruno

“The scenarios that are playing out in stores today take workplace safety to a whole new level,” said Lisa LaBruno, RILA’s vice president of retail operations and innovation, in an interview this summer with LP Magazine. “The cliché ‘desperate times call for desperate measures’ may very well lead to more retailers leveraging body-worn cameras. Time will tell,” she added.

Organized retail crime (ORC) “is leading to more brazen and more violent attacks in retail stores throughout the country,” said Steve Francis, executive associate director at Homeland Security Investigations. “Many of the criminal rings orchestrating these thefts are also involved in other serious criminal activity such as human trafficking, narcotics trafficking, weapon trafficking, and more. Tackling this growing threat is important to the safety of store employees, customers, and communities across the country.”

John Bartolac

The use case is there, according to John Bartolac, senior manager in the industry segments team for the Americas at Axis Communications. “With ORC continuing to pose major problems for retailers, footage captured by body-worn cameras can help streamline investigations and catch groups of perpetrators,” he said, noting that deterrence is another value-add. “Footage captured by these solutions can also be used to catch solo thieves, but the obvious presence of body-worn cameras on security guards and other staff may deter this behavior all together, along with potentially violent customer actions against store personnel and other patrons.”

Vendors have been cooperating with one another to deliver solutions that are easier for businesses to use, including replacing traditional siloed systems that law enforcement utilize for evidence management with open architecture solutions that allow BWC video to be managed by traditional video management systems (VMS), where it can be stored, organized, and accessed alongside other security camera video.

Randy Lack

Proprietary systems have had the upper hand in the BWC market to date but that is poised to change. “The advantage to have BWC video embedded into the VMS is massive, because now you don’t have siloed data,” explained Randy Lack, who heads the IoT safety and security team for Dell Technologies in the Americas, in a recent Dell-sponsored industry webinar produced by Security Systems News and the Security Industry Association. Evidence management and smoother processes for sharing information with law enforcement are just two of the benefits of BWC video.

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The shift to open platforms and increasing ease of use are two reasons Lack is bullish beyond current predictions for camera wearables. “I think we are going to see a rapid adoption, and something that far exceeds initial market estimates,” he said.

The Experience in the United Kingdom

Steven Jussaume

Co-panelist Steven Jussaume, solutions engineer at Axis Communications, agreed, He noted that the UK has been a driver of BWCs since their inception, including in implementing them in the retail space. “What is most interesting is how retail is starting to use body-worn cameras to document the employee interaction with customers, because in the current climate, with tempers flaring, they want to protect their store employees.”

Alasdair Field

Alasdair Field, CEO of Reveal, a UK-based provider of BWC technology, concurs with the positive impact of BWCs on de-escalation. “When we introduced our first camera to the police market thirteen years ago, we immediately saw what a powerful impact the cameras had in de-escalation of aggression toward the officer. Having that insight, we built smaller, more friendly appearing cameras specifically to help protect workers who were not in law enforcement.”

Field explained that their experience with BWC has almost always been positive, with the benefits linked far more to well-being, workplace safety, and deterring crime and anti-social behavior.

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Co-op, one of the largest retailers in the UK, reportedly planned an initial deployment of 1,000 BWCs in 250 stores in response to a growing number of attacks on store associates, which included 1,350 in one six-month span in 2020. Citing the desire to increase worker safety, the company’s retail security manager said employees would have the ability to activate a BWC with a press of a button when feeling threatened, with video then streaming directly to the security operations center run by its security contractor.

As reported in an article on UK-based supermarket retailer Tesco’s employee safety strategy in the Autumn edition of Loss Prevention Magazine Europe, “During 2022, Tesco has made a significant investment in the rollout of body‑worn cameras for security teams and colleagues with between two and ten video and audio-capturing devices per location across all format stores. Again, the numbers are impressive with the measures contributing to a wider sense of well-being, with 85 percent of colleagues, according to a twice yearly colleague engagement survey, feeling their safety is taken seriously at work.”

Iona Blake

In a recent LPM webinar on de-escalation and workplace safety, Iona Blake, security and incident manager of loss for Boots UK, detailed her company’s experience with BWCs. After the successful deployment of BWCs with security guards in their supply chain and warehousing facilities, as well as ten high-risk store locations, in late 2020 they decided to try the technology with store associates. During an initial pilot phase, there was a “massive reduction of incidents” according to Blake of up to 68 percent in the respective test sites. Apart from the reduction in incidents, Blake said, “The really interesting piece for me has been we’ve actually seen an improvement in losses too. We didn’t expect to see that.”

As aggressive and anti-social behavior has become an even greater issue in the UK, in June 2022 Boots expanded the use of BWCs to another 275 stores that represented roughly half of the company’s incidents across the business.

Movement in the US

Though lagging in adoption, Jussaume says they’ve started to have more conversations with US retailers, as they begin to scope out how to make effective use of BWCs. Customer interaction is a big focus, but US retailers also want to document what their employees are doing and how they do it, he said.

“We have a customer who is exploring using it for cleaning up spills in stores for an added layer of liability protection. So, if there is a broken jar of pickles, the employee will put on the camera, clean and dry the area, and then dock the camera and offload the video,” said Jussaume. “Yeah, they have security cameras, but this provides more direct evidence and an extra layer of security in the event someone ever comes back and says they didn’t do it—they can then go back and review that footage.”

Whereas law enforcement uses BWCs for evidence, Jussaume thinks documentation is the primary value when the tech is applied to most businesses. “Just documenting what is going on; what is transpiring in their establishments—that is what we are hearing is the main value proposition from these other verticals that are exploring BWC,” he said.

Data center locations may find it useful to document what their technicians do, which service closets they enter, and how much time they spend, for example. And transportation and logistics companies are looking to use it to document shipments to stores, with drivers using BWCs to document merchandise delivery, said Jussaume.

Scott Thomas

Investigations present another viable use case, according to Scott Thomas, national director of sales for signature brands at Genetec. In an interview with LPM, he said that several of his retail customers are now using them in various applications. “In stores where they have had either violence, repeated grab-and-run incidents, or pushouts, front-end managers are using body‑worn cameras to follow suspects at a distance,” he said.

Thomas said BWCs can enable evidence capture where there may not be a fixed camera and can help collect details about suspects, vehicles, and stolen merchandise. “Equally important is that employees’ hands are free if an incident potentially turns violent,” he said.

Another application is in building major cases against an ORC group by investigation teams. “They may follow a suspect from the store to the parking lot and then tail the vehicle at a distance. This enables them to gather evidence of the suspect going to another retailer, their residence, or potentially a storage location or fence.”

Bartolac thinks BWCs can also improve training for store staff, “by providing audio and visual recordings from a user perspective, creating a realistic, immersive learning environment,” he said. “Additionally, body-worn cameras can be used to collect footage for store audits, which typically cover every detail within operations, loss prevention, customer experience, health and safety, and more. With BWC footage, it’s easier for retailers to document any incidents that occur and protect them from wrongful compensation claims.”

LaBruno said that US retailers have historically been reluctant to use body-worn cameras, in part out of fear of non-compliant behavior by AP associates being captured on video. While multiple use cases exist—compliance, incident prevention, monitoring, risk mitigation, training—the specter that a disturbing store video could somehow go viral could certainly provide pause.

But the desire to innovate can be stronger. LaBruno said there was a healthy debate around the risks on an Asset Protection Leaders Council (APLC) member call recently, but that the retailer REI plans to pilot the use of BWCs regardless. “That’s innovative thinking,” she said. “That’s what it takes to tackle some of the toughest challenges the industry is facing today.”

Employee resistance to BWCs may have been a cause for concern several years ago, but Dell’s Randy Lack suspects that ship has sailed. At least as far as police use goes, BWCs have public support, with polls typically showing that more than 90 percent of Americans support police officers wearing body cameras that would record video of their interactions. In a Cato/YouGov poll, 81 percent said body-worn cameras would equally protect citizens interacting with police and the police officers themselves.

“Times have changed. With the ubiquity of cell phone video and the domination of the video medium, people now accept that this is just part of our world,” Lack said, noting that some workers may like the added security and additional documentation it can provide. “They think, ‘I am doing my job, and I am doing the right things, and I want to be able to show that.’”

Do Body-Worn Cameras Really Work?

Vendors are promoting the idea that in any customer-facing position, the presence of a body-worn camera can enhance employee safety and improve customer management. Customers are less likely to behave aggressively, and employees are more likely to respond in accordance with store policy. Is that true?

It may be. “Recently, a UK grocer shared with the APLC compelling data that showed their use of BWCs led to a significant decrease in violence against store employees,” said LaBruno. Additionally, researchers have found that when police officers wear body cameras, use of force is cut in half, which translates into fewer public complaints.

A randomized controlled trial at UK train stations with high assault rates against staff resulted in similar conclusions—and even discovered residual safety benefits. It suggests that all employees may be less subject to aggressive behavior, not just those wearing the cameras.

“Results suggest 47 percent significant overall reduction in the odds of assaults against BWC‑equipped staff at treatment versus controls locations—or approximately two versus four assaults, on average, per station,” concluded the study titled, Reducing Assaults Against Staff Using Body‑Worn Cameras in Railway Stations published in Criminal Justice Review in March 2019. “In addition, we found a 26 percent significant reduction in assaults against all employees in the treatment versus control station complexes—9 versus 12 assaults, on average, per station— suggesting that BWCs have a spatial diffusion of benefits effects.”

BWCs have also proven helpful in a healthcare setting. In an eight-week trial of body-worn video equipment in a UK hospital, researchers discovered that verbal abuse of security officers was reduced by 60 percent and incidents of aggression declined 29 percent.

And there is also anecdotal evidence from surveys and interviews with frontline private security personnel, including a 2021 survey of 10,000-plus security officers in nine countries by Perpetuity Research & Consultancy International and detailed in the study, The Competence of Frontline Security Professionals and What They Say About Their Work. “Bodycams have made a huge difference. In nine out of ten instances, a cam de-escalates a situation,” said one security officer who participated in the research project.

BWCs may reduce assaults on staff, and the presence of BWCs in volatile situations may also encourage store personnel to appropriately de-escalate situations, research suggests.

One experiment, written up in Journal of Quantitative Criminology, was the first to test the effect of wearable video cameras on police officer compliance rates and citizen complaints, The Effect of Police Body-Worn Cameras on Use of Force and Citizens’ Complaints Against the Police: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Over twelve months, researchers from University of Cambridge’s Institute of Criminology randomly assigned Rialto, California police officers to “experimental shifts” during which they were equipped with body‑worn HD cameras and “control” shifts, in which officers did not wear cameras.

“We found that the likelihood of force being used in control (non‑camera) conditions were roughly twice those in experimental (body camera) conditions,” according to the study. “The number of complaints filed against officers dropped from 0.7 complaints per 1,000 contacts to 0.07 per 1,000 contacts.”

More recent studies have resulted in similar findings, including a 2020 study published in the Journal of Criminology, titled “Linking Body-Worn Camera Activation with Complaints: The Promise of Metadata.” Analyzing 1.73 million body-worn camera activations by more than 3,900 frontline officers, “This study found that BWC-assigned officers recorded a substantially lower number of complaints per [computer-aided dispatch call] than those officers not assigned a BWC. Reduced complaint rates for BWC-assigned officers meshes with theories of deterrence as well as the results from other studies.”

Mike Shore

Mike Shore, vice president and general manager of enterprise at Axon, said that they have found similar findings. “We believe that incorporating a body-worn camera solution can be a force multiplier to current security processes by providing complete coverage of all customer interaction points on the sales floor, simplifying digital evidence management, and making each location safer for both staff and shoppers. In current BWC deployments, we’ve seen a 41 percent reduction in complaints, a 50 percent reduction in time spent managing operations data, and $4 saved in litigation costs for every $1 spent on hardware.”

What Does Implementing BWCs Take?

“The first thing retailers should do is clearly understand the need for such technology,” according to Bartolac, citing questions such as:

  • Does the store have a big theft problem?
  • Does it require more information around customer behaviors and why they shop the way they do?
  • Does it need advanced help with training employees or conducting store audits?

“Additionally, retailers should consider their existing surveillance systems and plan for how BWCs will fit in and enhance operations,” he said.

Once a retailer determines their need and plan for body-worn cameras, Bartolac said to be sure to consider three key factors before selecting a solution to maximize ROI: quality, ease of use and design, and integration ability.

Video from body-worn cameras can be managed alongside other surveillance video. “It is not a whole new system, just a new device,” explained Jussaume, but it does have different requirements. Because users play a key role in the process by donning and docking devices, retailers can’t implement them like any store camera.

Jason Huber

“End users are not likely to be technical people, so it has to be easy, it has to work right, and they need solid training,” said webinar panelist Jason Huber, public sector sales director for Genetec. “There is a human interaction element to this thing for it to work. So that support mechanism, and that human side of it, is going to be critical to the overall reliability of the system.”

He suggested that critical issues to address for effective deployment include:

  • Monitoring the health of the system,
  • Tracking how it is being used,
  • The best option for on-prem, cloud, or hybrid storage, and
  • Where training and coaching need to be applied.

Education of store associates and getting buy-in is hugely important, according to Reveal’s experience. The company also suggests that education of customers is important where BWCs are being worn so it isn’t a surprise. Reveal also recommends having metrics pre‑ and post-implementation in order to measure success.

Boots’ Iona Blake emphasized the importance of leadership and employee buy-in, but took it one step further: “Engage, engage, and engage again. Don’t just think you can launch this and have a big week worth of activity because after a couple of weeks complacency may start to drift in. So, keeping that engagement going is really, really important. And when you think you’ve got there, you haven’t. Keep on engaging and keep talking about it.”

BWCs are also not a shortcut to ensuring better security incident response. Indeed, while research has shown BWCs to have a positive impact on public interactions, researchers typically caution that BWCs do not offer an easy panacea for improving officer performance, accountability, and relationships with citizens.

Solution providers and system integrators will play a key role in whether BWCs become a common part of the retail landscape, say industry leaders. These are just a few considerations for retail leaders:

  • End-user customers will want someone who is going to show up and provide support when needed.
  • A measure of flexibility in how they consume and pay for BWC video.
  • Administrative simplicity.
  • Devices will need to meet expectations for battery life, image quality, reliability, and durability.

“Since body-worn cameras are on the frontline of activity, they must be able to withstand every condition the wearer endures while consistently producing high-quality images and audio,” explained Bartolac.

“That network of support for BWC technology is something that needs to mature to meet the market. It’s not just direct sales, you need integrators to be able to support body-worn cameras in a way that makes them easy for consumers to take advantage of,” said Lack. “Whenever you deploy new technology, you want to know that you have someone local helping you, supporting you, and you can reach out and work with them.”

Retail industry groups could help by developing model policies that individual retailers can adopt to their organizations, said solution providers. Until then, local police departments typically put their policies online, which can provide retailers with a shortcut to the policy development process, vendors suggested. “If you are just looking for information that you want to include in a policy and what it might need to cover, you can look at local police department policies,” said Jussaume.

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