By Charles Marlow
An unarmed person of color. Dead at the hands of law enforcement. And then another. And another. And another. And another.
Seeking to stem the tide of senseless death, a national search began for an appropriate response. In short order, a growing chorus of elected officials, law enforcement, and community leaders settled on a common answer: police body cameras. Recent surveys suggest that more than one in four police agencies have already started using them.
Unfortunately, the violence, injustice, and inequity that plague our system of law enforcement will not be solved simply by affixing tiny cameras to officers’ lapels. In fact, without the proper policies in place, the widespread deployment of police body cameras could do more harm than good. If body cameras are used to cast a net of roving surveillance over communities of color and low-income neighborhoods, they will cause harm. If police officers are given discretion as to when to turn on and off their cameras and key moments go uncaptured when violence erupts, they will cause harm. If video footage is captured but state laws or law enforcement policies prohibit the public from viewing it, they will cause harm. And if body camera videos are released en masse, resulting in the widespread violation of American’s privacy with no public benefit — except perhaps to fans of TMZ and “COPS” style reality shows — they will cause harm.
If, however, police body cameras are deployed within the framework of a well-considered policy that strikes the proper balance between promoting transparency and protecting privacy, police body cameras might just do some good. To that end, and in response to overwhelming demand, the ACLU is releasing a model bill for use by state legislatures and local police departments to guide the development of their laws, policies, and procedures on the use of body cameras. This model bill is far more than a wish list — it is a comprehensive plug-and-play policy for those seeking to implement a sound police body camera program.
To date, we know of no state government or local police department body camera policy that checks all the right boxes. For example, Seattle’s pilot program has strong rules governing when body cameras should be used, but it falls short in allowing police officers to review video footage before filing reports, which undermines investigations into police misconduct in many ways. The Seattle program also lacks disciplinary measures for officers who violate the rules.
The Los Angeles Police Department’s policy, while fairly strong as to when officers should and should not use their body cameras, completely undercuts the goal of promoting transparency by hiding virtually all body camera footage away from the public. And in a state like Florida, even the best department-level body camera policies will be undermined by a new state law that shields large classes of body camera footage from disclosure under the pretext of protecting privacy.
To some extent, the hit-and-miss nature of state and local policies is understandable. The popular outcry for body cameras and the subsequent rush to use them in an effort to save lives and to bolster accountability left little time for contemplating complex issues of public policy and constitutional rights.
But the ACLU has taken that time. We have spent countless hours examining and contemplating police body camera policies, including in those areas where principles we care deeply about — like privacy, racial justice, reforming police practices, and criminal justice reform — are inescapably at odds with each other. The result is that we have come through the process with a model bill that wisely balances the many important and competing interests that are inherent in any police body camera policy.
As we gain more real world experience with police body cameras, it is very possible some policy determinations reflected in our model bill may need to be reconsidered. That being said, the ACLU is confident the recommendations in our model bill are strong enough to be relied upon by states and local police departments throughout the nation.
There is much we must do to remedy the shortcomings of our nation’s law enforcement system. The implementation of sound police body camera programs is just a small piece of that effort, but if done right, it will likely be an important and valuable step in the right direction.
Chad Marlow is Advocacy and Policy Counsel for the ACLU