When I spoke in White Plains, NY, Monday evening, at a community forum on body cameras, it was interesting to hear several Westchester County police chiefs talk about how their departments have embraced body-worn cameras (BWC). The cameras are the biggest trend in police departments across the country, which is surprising, since their initial marketing was as police accountability tools.
But that framing has changed dramatically. Acceptance of body-worn cameras by many police departments comes at the cost of changing their focus from accountability to evidence collection and surveillance. Many department policies and even state laws are making it extremely difficult for anyone but the local prosecutor’s office to access the recordings, even though the cameras are being touted by the Department of Justice as a way for police to “demonstrate transparency to their communities.”
Even more frustrating are the differences between policies. Keeping up with how different law enforcement agencies – in big cities, small towns, college campuses or highway patrols – regulate or don’t regulate the use of these cameras can be daunting. Several community members at Monday night’s forum asked the police chiefs why they couldn’t coordinate together and create one, succinct body-camera policy? The chiefs’ responses were vague, non-answers, signaling that quick adoption of new technology is more important to them than coordinated study and evaluation.
Because of this, it becomes especially important for the public and social justice advocates to keep an eye on these policies to ensure that if body-worn cameras are used, it is as tools for police accountability and transparency, and not for surveillance of communities. Recent reports highlight problems that arise when law enforcement rushes to quickly adopt new technology with little oversight or regulation.
- The Brennan Center for Justice has examined the BWC policies of 24 cities and create several useful charts that track key components of each policy: circumstances of recording, privacy and First Amendment protections, accountability, retention and release of video, and security. Each chart is broken down further, comparing a city’s policy with three “model” policies from the ACLU, International Association of Chiefs of Police, and the Police Executive Research Forum. Brennan’s tables show concerning trends. For instance, none of the policies examined prohibit officers from viewing video before writing their reports, even in use-of-force incidents. Only five of the policies address disciplinary consequences for violations of the policy. And public access to video differs in almost every policy, except those where it’s not specified at all. If BWCs are to be used as tools for transparency, then access must be a key component of a department’s policy, even if it is ultimately subject to a state’s public records law. Failing to state how complainants can access video, or even worse, banning access to BWC footage, undermines the supposed goals of these programs.
- The new color-coded on-line chart from the Urban Institute further addresses the issue of accessing BWC footage. For all 50 states, the chart compares both current laws that could apply to body-worn camera recordings and new legislation specifically concerning BWC video that is either in the works or has already passed or failed. The incredible amount of new legislative activity shown in UI’s graph illustrates not only how much debate on BWC policy is taking place nationwide, but the different ways many states are trying to restrict access to footage.
- Finally, a new study from George Mason University’s Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy identifies key gaps in our knowledge about body-cameras and places where more study is crucial if both the public and law enforcement are going to be able to properly evaluate this technology. The authors show how little research has actually been done on the cameras and their effect on everything from community attitudes to use of force. On certain critical subjects, such as implicit bias and the “impact of BWCs on officers’ compliance with 4th Amendment standards”—issues directly related to CCR’s stop-and-frisk litigation—no studies have been done at all. Also lacking, but essential, is any study of how body-worn cameras will impact outcomes in court. For example, what impact do BWCs have on judges and juries, and how will their use affect plea decisions or witness credibility? The report is the first in a four-part series.
At Monday’s forum, when local police chiefs were asked about civilian oversight most were immediately defensive, saying it wasn’t important or necessary. As I wrote last year, body-cameras are not a cure-all; they must be combined with rigorous disciplinary and monitoring systems, including real civilian oversight. If departments are going to adopt this technology, it must be done extremely carefully and transparently, with broad community input and mandated methods for evaluation. The George Mason study, especially, shows how careful we must be, and how much more must be studied, if these cameras are going to have any function as an accountability tool.