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.”
In California, Assemblymember Freddie Rodriguez has introduced two measures designed to strengthen public safety, increase transparency and improve the relationship between police officers and the communities they protect.
Assembly Bill 69 will require all law enforcement officers statewide to wear body cameras while on duty.
Assembly Bill 71 will amend current reporting procedures for law enforcement and will require state law enforcement agencies to submit an annual report to the California Department of Justice on all shooting incidents where a peace officer is involved. The report would require statistics on shootings that result in the injury or death of an individual or a peace officer.
Currently, law enforcement agencies are only required to report justifiable homicides. AB 71 reflects a national call to increase reporting data of officer-involved shootings in the wake of some alarming reports by media on the difficulty of getting accurate data on officer-involved shootings and other use of force resulting in death.
“It is important to have a sense of trust between the community and the police,” said Assemblymember Rodriguez. “Officers wearing body cameras will strengthen that trust, give the public insight into how officers do their jobs and make both the officer and the community safer.”
Assemblymember Rodriguez continued, “It is also clear that there is not sufficient data on officer involved shootings. My bill will increase transparency and accountability while also providing a clearer picture on how often officers are shot in the line of duty. I have been working closely on these bills with stakeholders, including administrative and line police and sheriff officers to find a comprehensive and cooperative way to improve police-community relations.”
While most advocates have been supportive of the idea of body cameras, the actual roll out has been a bit more tricky, with privacy concerns as well as questions about whether and how videos are public records.
The Vanguard recently spoke with Chauncee Smith, a Racial Justice Advocate for the ACLU of California. “The ACLU is cautiously optimistic that the use of body-worn cameras by law enforcement will deter police misconduct and use of force incidents and provide an effective means to hold officers accountable for misconduct.”
One concern is privacy, when an officer approaches someone in their home. Normally, police would need a warrant to search a private residence. Mr. Smith said, “In those kinds of situations, we would like to see the person be given notice that there’s a body camera and [give] on-camera consent to ensure that privacy interests of people are protected.”
He noted that such a situation is a very different interaction than when it is a public encounter between people and law enforcement.
Mr. Smith also said that the ACLU’s position is that the officer’s initial statement should be made prior to them viewing the video to “get their natural perception of the incident in question if there’s evidence of a crime.” The subject of the law enforcement charges does not get to view the video prior to making their initial statement.
Finally, the ACLU believes that these videos, when they are of public value, should be available to the public – when there is evidence of a crime, accusation of misconduct, or a use of force question, the video should be a public record.
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.
—David M. Greenwald reporting