Guest Commentary: Model Policy for Police Body Cameras

police-swat-teamBy Charles Marlow


Staten Island.


North Charleston.


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

About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

Related posts


  1. hpierce

    The “model” appears to be a reasonable starting point for discussion.  My gut reaction is that is good at the 85-90% level.  There are several parts that are of concern, including a thread that the police officer is most always wrong unless proved to the contrary, and if a suspect knows they are in the wrong, they can easily make sure there is an unlevel playing field.  An ACLU bias, but they are ‘advocates’, and I have no problem with that, but there is an inherent bias… this is not a completely neutral, rational, detached proposal.

    But, I re-iterate, it is an excellent start for the conversation that the public and law enforcement needs to have. [IMO]

    1. PhilColeman

      I agree with YOUR assessment at the 85-90% level. The model itself finds me agreeing at the 20% level.

      How was this model developed? Note how the potential criminal suspect that has an encounter with law enforcement has unilateral power to deny the recording of the police/citizen. Note how every burden of responsibility and accountability is directed exclusively towards law enforcement behavior. No consequence or accountability is even worthy of mention towards the legal client base of the ACLU. Wonder why.

      This model was carefully crafted by ACLU attorneys exclusively. Aside from the usual clutter of lawyer-speak, more insidious are the many “hooks” deliberately inserted in this model policy/legislation. The seemingly mundane precise positioning of the camera on the officer to maximize recording capability. Where is that? And no matter where it is placed, it leaves open an argument that the camera was misplaced, did not get everything, therefore should exclude any incriminating recordings uttered by an ACLU client. That’s what I mean by “hooks.” Ambiguous requirements placed on law enforcement exclusively, allowing and encouraging an endless legal challenges to the legality of the police action and compliance to the ACLU guideline. Hooks everywhere is this horrendous named “model.” Don’t take my word for it, take a look for yourself, and see the convenient requirements that only favor a potential criminal, or discredits a police officer in a policy interpretation.

      Just one more hook among the many. The ACLU legal gurus advocate that a citizen has the power to refuse recording their interaction with the police as a condition of entering the citizen’s home. What if the police were responding to a most-common call: A neighbor hears a woman screaming for her life and calls the police? An irate male answers the door, alone, and says everything is fine and to go away.

      Case law says the police need not comply; indeed, they have the legal duty to investigate further, and can forcibly enter the home if necessary to be sure the source of the screaming is OK and will remain safe. But the ACLU says police officers can’t enter the home against the occupant’s wishes unless they turn off their cameras! That camera in that circumstance would reveal unbeatable information on the peril situation for a potential battered spouse or murder victim.


        1. David Greenwald

          It is really the ACLU protecting individual’s rights. Some of whom may be criminals, but many are simply accused or even the civil and privacy rights of non-accused.

        2. Don Shor

          When has the ACLU ever placed public safety over individual criminal rights.

          Public safety is not their issue. Individual rights and liberties are the core issue of the American Civil Liberties Union, criminal or otherwise.

        3. hpierce

          David… you do realize, or course that most crimes are taking away the victim’s civil rights/liberties, right?  The right to be secure in their own home, their right to property, their very right to life.  Most crimes, particularly the most serious ones, are a perp trampling someone else’s rights.

        4. sisterhood

          “Public safety is not their issue.”

          Agreed. It should be law enforcement’s issue.

          I wonder how many readers who seem to be against the ACLU have ever had their civil liberties trampled on?

      1. David Greenwald

        “The ACLU legal gurus advocate that a citizen has the power to refuse recording their interaction with the police as a condition of entering the citizen’s home. ”

        I think that may be the law anyway.

        1. zaqzaq


          By all means please identify your source for this being the law anyway.  Guessing at what the law is really adds nothing to the discussion.  Phil gave a great example of when the camera should be on when entering the home without the consent of the occupant.  I see no good legal or pol icy concepts that contradict recording the incident when an officer enters the home in an emergency situation.   Good policy supports recording so that the interaction can be properly preserved.

        2. Miwok

          That’s a right to be secure in one’s home from government intrusion.

          So, David, you feel that thieves and other criminals have a right to invade your home? The way you and others read the law, we have no right to defend our life, property, family, or possessions? I know the Sheriff reads it this way. Davis and UN, I mean UC Davis PD seem to feel property crimes are not worth even investigating.

        3. Davis Progressive

          “you feel that thieves and other criminals have a right to invade your home”

          i didn’t read his comment that way.  the bill of rights protects against government intrusion into private lives.  where as thieves and criminals are breaking criminal statutes that prohibit intrusion into private homes.

  2. zaqzaq

    This would be a bad law to pass.  The cameras should be on during all citizen contacts regardless of where they occur and whether they are a victim, suspect, informant or witness.  They should be on during all contacts with citizens even during 1st amendment protests.  This protects the officers from unrecorded accusations of misconduct when it is the person making the accusation that controls when camera is on.  There should be no need to inform anyone that the camera is rolling.  Once all agencies have them the person in contact with law enforcement should have the expectation that their conversation is being recorded.  The cameras should be linked into facial recognition software and used for roving surveillance in the communities.  This will be a valuable asset to law enforcement.  Imagine in Davis an officer on patrol in a neighborhood that has been victimized by auto and home burglaries.  The facial recognition software identifies an individual with a history of theft offenses.  If the officer had this information they could then focus their attention on this individual and have a better chance of catching them in a theft and preventing property loss to the citizens of Davis.  It would be really cool if they could use a small drone to watch the individual from above and then swoop down and catch them in the act of stealing from a car or home.  It would be even cooler if the drone were able to record the burglaries.  Any tool that can reduce crime and catch criminals is a good thing.  It makes the public safer.  Officers should also be able to review the tapes while preparing their reports in order to prepare the most accurate reports for those who will be using them.  They should not be used as gotcha moments by defense attorneys in hearings or trials.  We already have car cameras that are a tool for officers that are available for review when the officer believes it is necessary.  The same should be for body cameras.

    I see a number of challenges with the release of body and car camera videos to the media or private citizens.  Should third party individuals have their faces redacted from the video?  Voices changed so that they cannot be identified?  This process could be very time consuming.  Who bears the cost of these redactions?  This process could become very expensive for cities and counties concerning the storage, redaction and processing of requests.  Our city already has a budget shortfall.  How do we avoid additional drains on the public resources?  Should the person requesting the information be charged up front for these costs?

    This proposed law prohibits the use of this video in certain circumstances.  What if those limitations contradict the federal or state constitutions?  Especially the use in criminal cases.  What if evidence of innocence is collected improperly and this law prohibits its use in a criminal case?  Same for evidence of guilt.

    Concerning 1st amendment speech in the form of protests.  This bill prohibits the use of body cameras.  As we have seen in places like Baltimore and Ferguson there often are violent protesters mingled with the non-violent.  Banning the use of body cameras in this situation allows these bad actors to act with impunity knowing that they cannot be caught on camera.  Allowing the use of body cameras should help keep these protests peaceful.  That would be a good thing for all.

    All this proposed bill does it identify issues concerning the use of these cameras by the police.  Many of the positions taken by the ACLU are contrary to public safety and good policy.

    1. David Greenwald

      “This protects the officers from unrecorded accusations of misconduct when it is the person making the accusation that controls when camera is on.”

      From my experience cops are already protected against unrecorded accusations of misconduct. I’ve rarely if ever seen a substantiated complaint that does not have video to back it up and other even when there is video, the officer gets away with a slap on the wrist. It is rare that we see termination on the basis of citizen complaint and those only occurred when it was well founded.

      1. zaqzaq

        Recording these interactions allow for a prompt and efficient resolution of the complaint.  If the only complaints that are substantiated are those with video then good policy would not allow for individuals to ask that the recording be turned off.

        1. zaqzaq

          The process would be cleaner if the interactions are recorded and would discourage false claims of the complaining party knows that the interaction was recorded.  It would also eliminate the accusations of a cover up when the citizen feels wronged after the internal investigation.  The police just make the video public with an explanation.

  3. Miwok

    The fact these things are being considered with on on/off switch is disconcerting. The other is the fact some people are able to say they they may force the officer to turn it off. Just the audio of the entire event can be useful if the officer is provoked, then accused of behaving badly. Same thing for the citizen.

    IF you are going to have these things, the value of identifying an officer who is constantly engaging in sadistic or risky behavior because  of a substance abuse problem, verbal abuse of family or citizens, and other behavior may prevent a tragedy from happening based on review of the officer interaction in the field where only the public has a clue is invaluable

    My comment about the ACLU matches PhilColeman’s. ACLU has their own interests to employ. At least they are not a government organization.

    1. zaqzaq

      You need the on/off switch for breaks such as lunch or bathroom.   There is no need to record private conversations of officers.  It is only the interaction with the public to include suspects that needs to be recorded.

  4. Napoleon Pig IV

    It’s interesting to read comments expressing such distrust of the motives of the ACLU and comments characterizing them as primarily in the business of protecting “criminals.” Effective propaganda that can cause otherwise educated people to view the ACLU in this manner is a wonderful thing to observe, sort of like observing dermestid beetles strip a carcass. Small bites over enough time lead to a very clean skeleton. What proportion of “crimes” are actually wrong acts versus convenient definitions designed to preserve the power of government over its citizens? Pigs revel when sheep turn on each other and ignore porcine prevarications and plunderings.

    Citizen-managed video is clearly one approach to end the idea that there is some kind of twisted justification for imposition of the death penalty when a citizen runs from a cop. The idea that state-controlled video (and other forms of spying) should become the norm is quite troubling and raises the obvious questions “who will watch the watchmen?” Oink!

    1. zaqzaq

      In my opinion the ACLU is a clear minority agenda that lacks to support of the majority of the citizens in this country.  The media is doing the same thing to cops.  Leading otherwise intelligent people to view all cops in a bad light.

      1. Don Shor

        In my opinion the ACLU is a clear minority agenda that lacks to support of the majority of the citizens in this country.

        Being popular is also not their mission. Never has been. Their mission is

        “to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to every person in this country by the Constitution and laws of the United States.”

        Needless to say, that often causes them to act on behalf of people in the minority against the practices and attitudes of the majority of citizens in this country.

  5. PhilColeman

    On the matter of the police already having adequate protections in place to guard against false complaints of professional conduct, I totally disagree. Most IA complaints are, “he said, she said,” one-on-one with no witnesses, and the finding is never unfounded, but the more onerous but accurate, “not sustained.” Police haters translate “Not Sustained” as, “Your guilty, but they could not prove it.’

    Be it fair or not, there is a widely shared perception that the mere notation that an officer was charged with unprofessional behavior is a stain on the officer’s resume. In a deposition or court testimony on a civil suit the opposing attorney will ask a law enforcement officer, “How many Internal Affairs Complaints have you received.” Never do they ask how many “sustained” internal affairs complaints have you received. Whatever number you reply with, the guaranteed reaction by the questioning attorney is something that resembles cardiac arrest. The phrase, “Where there’s smoke there’s fire,” also find itself in any narrative.

    Even in the law enforcement culture, where they should know better, when officers are considered for transfers to premium assignments or promotions, a review of received citizen complaints (numbers alone) has some influence on later judgments.

    A prominent labor attorney once told me that any male teacher even remotely accused of pedophilia–and it is determined to be false in every respect–the taint remains for as long as that teacher remains in the profession. That man’s career goes no further in advancement. So, police are not alone, for sure.

    Now back to those pesky cameras. Somebody comes in to complain of a police officer behavior. The complainant is shown the entire video and audio of the interaction. From my very vast and very detailed past professional history in this particular field–that complainant in at least 4 cases out of 5–would get up and walk out the door. I openly dare anybody to try and refute that. I’ll be watching and listening, just like those cameras.


    1. hpierce

      Folk, please listen carefully to Phil… it also applies to other public sector employees, but is CRITICALLY (pun intended) important in the situation of Police Officers… [particularly in jurisdictions like Davis… maybe not so much in big cities]

    2. zaqzaq

      Keeping the cameras on could also save the city money by eliminating frivolous lawsuites claiming officer misconduct.  Pulling up a random citizen contact could also be used as an officer training opportunity to review what went well and areas for improvement.

      1. Miwok

        random citizen contact could also be used as an officer training opportunity

        It could also flag an officer needing help or more training. Psychologists could also have fun with it?

    3. David Greenwald

      Phil – appreciate your perspective, that certainly hasn’t been mine from the other side. I recently got a call from an attorney the other day, it seems that a guy both the Yolo Sheriff’s Department and the Davis Police had terminated, who was involved in the tasering in 2012 at the Glacier Point Apartments ended up hired by Galt police and was up to his old tricks. So there’s a case where a guy with sustained use of force complaints ended up moving on to another department.

      1. hpierce

        David… that is not unique to Police… if a public agency is asked about a former employee, all they give (unless they knowingly break the rules) is dates of employment and positions held.  True also for janitors, Planners, engineers, FF’s, accountants, etc.  Please don’t imply another “blue line” conspiracy.

        Think Phil’s comment should be in the context of “within their own agency”… not at all the same context as your feeble “rebuttal”…

        1. PhilColeman

          Sorry hpierce, not entirely true. A police officer candidate must sign a waiver of release allowing full access to prior work history. A copy of the waiver is given to each past employer for their records. This is a pre-condition to proceeding further in the application process.

          It is true that some private employers will not divulge meaningful work history, even with a waiver. They follow the adage: Say nothing and you won’t get sued. But brother law enforcement agencies never want to pass on a bad seed and will reveal everything they have. If for any reason, one department passes a bad seed to another agency, that word gets out to the law enforcement community real fast, and condemnation follows.

      2. PhilColeman


        Taking your hearsay report at full report and accurate summation, my response is simple. The person in the Galt Police Department–charged with the POST-mandated background check prior to employing this person–should be terminated for cause.

        Since this aside has no bearing on the topic at hand, let’s we now return to the discussion of the ACLU model policy for the deployment of police body cams. But before we even do that, let’s do away with the term, “Model.” A model policy and legislative document incorporates the views of all involved stakeholders. The ACLU apparently sees no need for full input on a model plan, just do what their internal staff proposes.


        1. David Greenwald

          I think your point that the ACLU model policy is one-sided is reasonable. That said, I think their concerns are legitimate for the most part and should be incorporated into a broader policy.

    4. Napoleon Pig IV

      Of course police officers perform a vital public service and must be treated fairly by both the legal system and by the citizens whom they serve.

      However, bad apples are routinely hidden (both actively and passively) by wholesome apples, and there are many laws that have nothing to do with actual criminal behavior but rather are designed to protect and enrich those already in power, including the politicians who author the “laws.” Look at all the misuse of police officers by local and state officials to generate city and state revenue, for example. Funny how “justice” is defined to include the paying of a fine to a government body.

      Consider civil forfeiture “laws” and their systematic abuse, whether by the federal government in pursuit of its lucrative “war on drugs” or its lucrative “laws” against currency “laundering,” or abuse by local and state governments seizing land and property just because they can.

      Add to those abuses, systematic biases against minority citizens and the macho culture of many police departments, and the need for enlightened and empowered citizens becomes obvious. Oink!

      1. zaqzaq

        The fine helps reimburse government for the cost of arresting and convicting them.  Being convicted of a crime should not be a free.  Asset forfeiture laws are designed to take away the property obtained by illegal means.  I do not see a problem with this.  Why reward criminal behavior by allowing the criminals to retain resulting from crime.

        1. Napoleon Pig IV

          Maybe reimbursement was the original intent, but like a lot of good intentions poorly implemented, civil forfeiture laws are a stimulus for abuse, not reimbursement. Like most cases of abuse of power, the non-powerful usually can’t afford to fight. Fortunately, a few can; and, fortunately, we still have freedom of the press:

          Unfortunately, there are many cases like this, many of which occur at the local or state level and do not attract the attention of journalists and pro bono lawyers. Is it really any wonder that enlightened citizens are skeptical of power and weapons held in the same hand? Oink!

    5. Frankly

      Ironic that the Vanguard started as a result of the Davis Human Relations Reactionary Commission being disbanded after going after the Davis PD over the Halema Buzayan incident and the lies from her parents that the mom was driving then the accident happened, and the lies that the cops were rude and heavy handed in the treatment of them and their daughter, when later a recording of the actual interaction between the police officer and the family was released. it proved he was more than professional and kind in his interactions with the Buzayan family.

      If a body like the HRC would do this, you can bet that there are plenty of other residents that will do the same.

      1. David Greenwald

        You misunderstand the nature of the complaint against Officer Ly which was an illegal arrest and poor judgment plus a denial of Miranda rights (she requested a lawyer and Ly ignored the request). Officer Ly wasn’t rude, however, Sgt. Gina Anderson was. After Ms. Buzayan filed a complaint, Sgt. Anderson was the professional standards officer who interviewed her. Ms. Anderson was the one who was rude and she also illegally used the investigation process to pressure Ms. Buzayan. I have that on tape by the way. That one was never released.

        I’d also point out that while the Buzayan case got the most attention, there were probably 9 or 10 other relatively serious complaints that got less attention around the same time.

  6. sisterhood

    “… civil forfeiture “laws” and their systematic abuse, whether by the federal government in pursuit of its lucrative “war on drugs” or its lucrative “laws” against currency “laundering,” or abuse by local and state governments seizing land and property just because they can.”


  7. zaqzaq

    Why don’t you get a guest commentary from the other side that does not agree with the out of touch with mainstream america ACLU.  The article hits some important issues but recommends the wrong outcome.

Leave a Reply

X Close

Newsletter Sign-Up

X Close

Monthly Subscriber Sign-Up

Enter the maximum amount you want to pay each month
Sign up for