February 25, 2023

MTA Police Chief John Mueller is creating a “body-worn camera video library” to showcase good policing


PERF members,

I’ve always known John Mueller to be one of the most forward-thinking police chiefs in the profession. John started his career with the NYPD, then spent 28 years with the Yonkers, NY Police Department, serving as commissioner from 2019 to 2022. Last year, he was selected to lead the Metropolitan Transportation Authority Police Department (MTAPD), where he oversees a staff of 1,200 that patrols Grand Central Terminal, Penn Station, the Metro-North Railroad, the Long Island Railroad, and the Staten Island Railway. While with Yonkers, he welcomed NPR and the Marshall Project to report an in-depth podcast series on the department.

So when John emailed me his idea about a new way agencies can use body-worn camera videos, I wanted to know more. In our conversation below, Chief Mueller explains his idea for a “body-worn camera video library” containing footage of officers’ good work that other officers can “check out” and learn from. He also provides some general thoughts about his career.

John Mueller at the ICAT National Conference

Chuck Wexler: Body-worn cameras have changed policing in many ways. What are your observations about them? How do you think they can be used to help educate police officers?

John Mueller: Initially there was a large body of resistance in our profession to body-worn cameras, but there’s been a 180-degree change—especially with some of our senior personnel, who see that this is one of the better things you can have in your arsenal. A lot of senior people didn’t want it, but now they wouldn’t leave the building without it. I think everybody knows that it’s a way to keep you safe.

We often tell our young police officers what not to do: don’t do this, don’t do that. The body-worn camera library came out of an idea of what to do.

Wexler: What can chiefs learn from what you’re doing with your library idea?

John Mueller: A lot of chiefs probably came on in the early ‘90s, as I did. In our group, when you were trying to learn to be a good police officer and write a good report, you’d be told to go look at a certain officer’s reports because he writes excellent reports. So you would pull that officer’s reports to figure out how to write a good report.

Today’s police officers have been so brought up on video—learning by watching—that we thought using body-worn cameras was a very natural progression. This library will have an unlimited number of “books” that you can take off the shelf. There’s nothing better than seeing an actual scene unfold, especially when it’s good solid work that you want other officers to emulate. It will also motivate our commanding officers to look at more body-worn camera footage. We can all learn from this technology.

Wexler: How does this library fit into your overall training strategy?

John Mueller: We have the district commanders find good video or, if we hear about it, we ask them to forward it to the command staff. My office looks at it and then sends it to training to make sure it is aligned with proper training principles.  

At that point, the officer is contacted because the library is also a great way to acknowledge good work. Some officers want to be acknowledged, and some don’t.

Every video should be under five minutes, ideally three to three and a half minutes, because we know people’s attention tends to wander after that. We can slow video down or speed it up to emphasize certain points. We can add graphics to it. And as PERF did at the ICAT [Integrating Communications, Assessment, and Tactics] conference in San Diego, we might add a voiceover where the officer talks about what they were thinking in that particular incident and how they arrived at the right conclusion about what to do.

Wexler: Do you arrange the videos in different categories?

John Mueller: We don’t have a big library yet. It’s still a work in progress, and we’re learning as we go. But we think it will be organized by categories. Like, you could pull out videos for good de-escalation techniques or even videos for empathy, where officers are showing good behavior in situations that might not be sexy, not cops and robbers, but just a really positive way to deal with the public.

This library is going to get bigger and bigger. I have a great training commanding officer in Chuck Pisanelli, who’s taken this idea and run with it.

Wexler: You touched on empathy. Can you give us some examples of how you would use body-worn camera video to teach empathy?

John Mueller: We deal with Grand Central Terminal, we deal with Penn Station in New York City, and all these giant terminals that get hundreds of thousands of people every day. Obviously, there’s a big homelessness problem, and a lot of the empathy piece is how we deal with homeless people in a humane way. It might be taking an extra ten minutes with someone, or getting assistance for someone in a wheelchair to move to a different location. These are day-to-day interactions that police officers all over the country have and that turned out to be really positive. Nobody really sees or pays attention to them, but they happen every single day.

Wexler: And with the library you’re creating, you’ll be able to highlight those positive examples for the rest of the department and make good use of them, which is wonderful. Speaking of homelessness, you’re about to take on a major challenge on how you deal with that important issue. Can you talk a bit about that?

John Mueller: The MTA Police Department has three end-of-the line subway stations, and the NYPD transit has five. It’s our job to discourage people from sheltering in the system overnight. So we are on the platform with psychiatric nurses and homeless outreach workers, and with the police. We recognize that you have to offer services; you can’t eject someone just to get them out of the system. By having these other people at hand, we can get people services pretty quickly. But a lot of homeless people are in mental crisis. They might be sleeping on the subway or the subway train, and if you wake them up too quickly they may think you’re attacking them, and they may be carrying a knife to defend themselves. So these situations sometimes require a lot of de-escalation, a lot of talking.

Wexler: In ICAT, the videos we show include some incidents that aren’t handled well, where the police response was mixed or needed improvement. Do you plan to include those kinds of videos in your library?

John Mueller: We use those, but not in the library. For incidents that require retraining, we can get that body-camera footage and do a good a job in a smaller environment with our training folks. The library is all about showing good work: here’s an incident that was handled so well that the command staff want to publish it for everybody. But you also want to go a little further than that. Why is it good? What were the training lessons we learned? What de-escalation techniques did they use?

Wexler: This idea could revolutionize training by showing actual examples of what good policing looks like.

John Mueller: Absolutely. Everybody likes training modules, and I think this is going to pique officers’ interest much more because every agency in the United States that has body-worn camera footage can do it. It’s going to get officers more engaged because they’re seeing a fellow officer, not some anonymous person. And it may even initiate a conversation between the officer who watched the video and the officer in the video. You know, can you tell me more about this? I’m interested in how you handled that.

When we add a new book to our library, we’re going to put it out on a mass email to everybody so the officers can open it up; it’s almost like an alert. But you can go back and check it out anytime you want. If a young officer is learning how to de-escalate and how to deal with homeless people in crisis, we’ll have a couple of good videos they can take off the bookshelf and look at.

Wexler: There’s so many great permutations on your idea. I can imagine body-worn camera videos of supervisors showing how they handled certain situations. Wouldn’t that be something?

John Mueller: That would be fantastic. The way PERF teaches us when we go to SMIP [Senior Management Institute for Police], it’s all about how to manage people. What you’re talking about is a perfect example. It could be a crazy incident, with multiple things going on. The sergeant is there by himself, but he has command presence. What does command presence look like? He has communication skills. What does that look like? Is he organizing where he’s directing people? Some people do this really well; with his body-worn camera footage, we can share it with other supervisors.

Wexler: If a cop is lucky enough, they get someone like you as their first sergeant, but not everybody gets lucky, so now you could have videos showing what good supervisors look like. It’s pretty exciting.

John Mueller: I think you said it best. There are many permutations of this.

Wexler: Let’s go back a little bit. You started your career in the NYPD, but then you moved to the Yonkers Police Department, where you were chief for three years. And you saw a 45 percent reduction in crime over time, which has to feel pretty good. What were some of the major takeaways that other chiefs should know about on how you dealt with crime?

John Mueller: The number one takeaway is, if you look at a lot of the studies, a small subset of offenders repeatedly offend. So we adopted a precision policing model that’s very offender-centric. For example, if we have 30 car break-ins in a given precinct, that’s not 30 people doing one car each. It’s one person doing 20 cars and another person doing ten. So you can focus on that small subset of offenders that repeatedly offend and engage in what I refer to as prosecutorial advocacy. You tell the district attorney, Look, I don’t need every single person to go to jail; there’s a lot of first-time offenders. But if you can give me the tools to take care of those people that are repeatedly offending, you can drive crime down pretty significantly, and pretty quickly.

Wexler: After you did a phenomenal job in Yonkers, you went to the MTA. What was that transition like?

John Mueller: When you go to a new place, you want to have new ideas, but you don’t want to alienate people by saying the place is messed up and we’ve got to fix this and fix that. You learn a lot about how to listen and draw things out of people. I knew Yonkers like the back of my hand—I knew the players, the community, the needs. Here, it’s very important to listen and hear what they say.

It’s also important to get some quick victories. What things can you do right away to improve the officers’ quality of life?

Wexler: What do you hope your legacy will be when you leave the MTA? What would you like people to think about what you’ve accomplished, at the MTA and also at Yonkers?

John Mueller: The best legacy you could have is that when you leave, up-and-coming leaders that you've identified and developed—by providing them with training and educational opportunities and allowing them to take risks and make mistakes without fear of lowering their status—are able to take over.

I’m a big fan of the idea that the most dangerous phrase in the English language is, “We’ve always done it this way.” I often tell people that six months after I leave, you should be challenging what I was doing, not just saying, “This is the way we do it.” That’s how we get better. Policing always changes, and it’s important to look at things like body-worn cameras and say okay, we’ve got this new technology, how do we leverage it to make ourselves better?

Wexler: John, I’ve known you for a while and you’re very optimistic. You don’t seem to let craziness around you get to you. What accounts for your get-things-done attitude?

John Mueller: One thing is, you have to have faith in people. The MTA PD has so much talent that it’s just so exciting to work there.

The second thing is, I look at police departments like the stock market. Don’t worry about the short term; everybody’s going to have a difficult week next week or the week after. But where are we trending? The stock market goes up and down, but in general it trends upward.

That’s how I stay optimistic. Policing has come out of a very challenging couple of years, and I think the best is yet to come. With all the bright minds and the best of intentions, we’re figuring things out in a way that will keep everybody safer.