Communities struggle to govern police body camera footage

There are few federal guidelines or laws governing the use of body cameras, leaving states and municipalities to create their own rules that vary greatly

By Mary Velan

With the rising number of controversial confrontations between police and the public, many communities have started to equip law enforcement officers with body cameras to increase transparency and accountability. After adding the body cameras to police department requirements, many communities find themselves struggling to determine what footage should be available to the public and what should fall under privacy protections.

This balancing act between public disclosure and personal privacy has led to 10 states passing laws concerning public access to police camera footage. Some of the laws aim to protect the privacy of people being recorded by the police, while others limit accessibility to the video footage, Pew Charitable Trusts reported.

Despite $20 million in federal funding being awarded to cities and states to deploy police body cameras among law enforcement teams, there are few federal guidelines or laws governing their use. Rather, each municipality and state has its own rules that vary greatly.

Grading the Laws

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights recently developed a policy scorecard that examined 25 police departments across the country that have deployed body cameras. The goal of the scorecard is to provide a comprehensive summary of municipal body camera laws across the country to determine what is working and what is falling short of expectations. The scorecard relied on eight standards to independently evaluate the police departments including:

  • Whether the agency had published its policy publicly
  • Whether policies limited when officers could decide to not record an incident
  • Whether there was the consideration of personal privacy
  • Clear terms as to when officers could review footage
  • Policies for the limited retention of unflagged footage
  • Policies against tampering and misuse of footage
  • Policies for access outside of the department
  • Limitations regarding the use of biometric technology

Some opponents of the police body cameras comment that the devices capture citizen activity and do not face police officers. Therefore, laws governing the cameras must be stringent so as to prevent the tools from being used as a government surveillance mechanism. In addition, biometric technology - such as facial or voice recognition - could provide increased accountability as well as enable real-time surveillance on residents. Only Baltimore's police department had policies in place to address and limit the use of biometric technology in conjunction with officer-issued cameras, the study found.

Furthermore, experts argued police departments must have strict policies governing when officers can review footage to prevent the tailoring of reports to match the video content. If a video is viewed prior to submission of an incident report, an officer may change the report to match what is captured rather than provide an independent account of the event. Officers should also follow a clear set of guidelines for the use of cameras in sensitive cases where personal privacy concerns may come into play.

While all 25 police departments demonstrated there was room for improvement, law enforcement agencies in Atlanta, Georgia, and Ferguson, Missouri, were cited as having the least thought out body camera policies.

Policy Considerations, Recommendations

Policymakers and law enforcement leaders must make some complex decisions when determining how body cameras will be used and governed. The decisions can be broken down into three categories:

  • Collection and analysis of data
  • Storage, disclosure and retention or destruction of data
  • Secondary use and repurposing of data

Audio data has long been used by law enforcement, and video footage has become more popular as of late. But not until recently has both audio and video footage been available or potentially required with the use of body cameras. When it comes to the collection of video and audio data, police departments may need to acquire consent from those involved before using the footage, or provide clear notification that they are being recorded. This brings up the question of whether the body cameras should always be on or be controlled by each individual officer, Route Fifty reported.

Constant recording of all police activities could unnecessarily invade the privacy of individuals coming in contact with law enforcement for a variety of reasons. The vast volumes of data generated by constant recording of police activities would present a feasibility issue regarding the review and storage of the information as well.

Yet, if police officers have control over when recordings start and stop, the purpose of accountability and transparency comes into question. The accuracy and thoroughness of the recordings to provide insight into an event would be diminished if officers had control of the cameras. This may result in excessive litigation, uncertainty and mistrust between citizens and law enforcement, which is exactly what communities are trying to remedy with the use of body cameras, Route Fifty reported.

To help local governments and law enforcement agencies develop comprehensive legislation to govern body cameras, the ACLU has drafted model legislation for the states. The sample law calls for police to release footage that is covered by automatic 3-year retention policies for specific types of recordings such as ones that:

  • Illustrate a use of force
  • Result in a felony-level arrest or complaint
  • Have been requested by a law enforcement officer or subject of a video

While no state has adopted the recommended legislation in its entirety, several have enacted measures to mirror many of the key policies. Maryland, for example, has adopted a policy very similar to the ACLU's draft legislation, while Florida and North Dakota have deployed privacy restrictions on videos taken in private places such as someone's home, Pew Charitable Trusts reported.

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