In the wake of Ferguson, we have had a nationwide discussion on issues focusing on police accountability and oversight. One idea that has emerged has been requiring police to wear police body cameras – cameras that clip on to an officer’s uniform and record audio and video of the officer’s interactions with the public.
President Obama in early December proposed a new Body Worn Camera Partnership Program that “would provide a 50 percent match to states and localities that purchase body worn cameras and requisite storage. An investment of $15 million in the first year could support up to 10,000 body worn cameras and storage. Overall, the $75 million investment over three years could help purchase 50,000 body worn cameras and storage.”
Michael Brown’s parents released a statement, encouraging the public to join their campaign “to ensure that every police officer working the streets in this country wears a body camera.”
On December 4, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said, “There is some scientific studies — there are some scientific studies that indicate — that are preliminary, that do indicate that body cameras do have an impact; that there are a number of studies that indicate that — at least in one study that was conducted in Rialto, California, it found that officers who did not wear body cameras were twice as likely to use force as those who were, and that there were initial results from another study in Mesa, Arizona, that suggest that 65 percent fewer complaints were filed against officers who wore body cameras.”
He added, “I think it’s also important to point out that these kinds of body-worn cameras can also perform an important function of enhancing the safety of law enforcement officers themselves. If the individuals that are having a confrontation with the officer know that they, too, are being filmed, that also might affect the kind of interaction that this individual has with the police officer. So these studies are preliminary, so I don’t think that a final judgment has been passed on this, but I do think that there is at least some evidence to indicate that body cameras could make some difference.”
However, there is pushback on this idea. In San Jose, a department long at the forefront of police oversight efforts, the San Jose Mercury News reported last week, “San Jose’s efforts to equip its officers have stalled for years, most recently waiting for the city and its police union to agree on a policy covering the use of cameras.”
The article noted, “But in San Jose, the Bay Area’s largest city and self-proclaimed capital of Silicon Valley, the cameras have yet to be tested, more than two years after a pilot program appeared poised to begin. The program was left in limbo after Chief Chris Moore retired in 2013 and more recently has been delayed as the police union and the department work out how footage taken by the cameras can be used.”
“I’m very frustrated. This department should have cameras,” said Independent Police Auditor LaDoris Cordell, a retired judge who has pushed for the cameras for nearly four years. “This delay is unnecessary. We need to move forward.”
Meanwhile, the Voice of San Diego reported on Monday that, while San Diego police officers are wearing new body cameras, the public isn’t allowed to see the videos. The online news site reported, “The police department denied our formal records request for the protest footage.”
They write, “(San Diego Police Chief Shelley) Zimmerman said she would consider making police body camera videos public in certain circumstances, such as the shooting in Ferguson that left Michael Brown dead at the hands of Officer Darren Wilson. But it’s becoming clear that would only happen in the most extreme situations. So far Zimmerman has denied requests to make camera footage available when officers were involved in shootings and these protests.”
They add, “The reason is that SDPD doesn’t view body cameras primarily as a tool for transparency, like it was billed when city leaders began discussing the cameras in earnest earlier this year. Instead, it’s a way for the department to gather more evidence in criminal cases. This is the legal reason the department has said it’s allowed to keep all footage out of public view.”
In October of 2013, the ACLU released their recommendation on police body cameras. While they support the technology overall, there are two tricky but critical questions they raise:
- Will police officers have the discretion to control what the cameras record? If officers can “edit on the fly,” that will destroy this technology’s value as a police accountability tool. Should officers’ cameras be on at all times during their shift, or would it be too oppressive for officers to have every chat between partners in a patrol car recorded, and to worry that recordings will be misused by police supervisors against whistleblowers or union activists? But if they are under officer control, how do we ensure that an officer won’t manipulate the recordings to permit abuse?
- Are good policies put in place to ensure that these cameras do not invade the privacy of particular individuals, or become yet another vector for mass surveillance? How can we ensure that citizens are made aware that they are being recorded; that video taken inside a person’s home (during a domestic violence call or burglary investigation, for example) or in other sensitive situations does not embarrass someone and cause others to hesitate to call for help? How can we ensure that video of embarrassing or titillating incidents does not get circulated within a police force for laughs, or end up on the internet? How can we ensure that the public has faith that video of their interactions with the police will be strictly handled?
In September of 2014, following the initial Ferguson, Missouri, incident, ACLU Communications and Public Policy Director Ed Yohnka cautioned, “It would be unwise to deploy this new technology without instituting some basic privacy protections for the man on the street. If we don’t, police body cameras may devolve into yet another tool for routine surveillance of the public, not oversight of the police.”
He argued, “The best approach is to require officers to record every interaction with a civilian. The only exception to this policy should be for First Amendment activity (e.g., a protest, demonstration or rally), which should not be captured and cataloged by police. This activity should not be recorded — absent some reasonable suspicion of criminal behavior.”
He added, “This standard means capturing a lot of data, from stop-and-frisk searches to tourists seeking directions. Concern about collecting this many recordings can be mitigated by regulating how this data is retained and distributed.”
“Recordings should be retained no more than 90 days, unless the encounter has been flagged — an instance in which force is used, a detention or arrest results, a formal or informal complaint is filed or because a supervisor holds it for internal training purposes,” he wrote.
“Individuals recorded by police officers should have access to recordings pertaining to their incident. Flagged recordings should be released to the public on request. Any recording not flagged should not be disclosed. Finally, no recordings should be disclosed to other government agencies unless a supervisor determines they are relevant to an ongoing investigation or contain evidence of criminal activity,” Mr. Yohnka added.
However, from reading the reports from San Diego and San Jose, it seems that right now there will be a hodge-podge of local authority protocols over recording, and that will lead to both uneven application of practices and confusion by the citizens as to their rights.
Based on that, either at the state or federal level, there should be guiding legislation that at the very least lays out baseline conditions for use, even if it is to leave local authorities to have the discretion for the rollout of their program.
—David M. Greenwald reporting