Last year, I wrote a blog that focused on the possible benefits of the technology:
- Document evidence in investigations
- Protect citizens from excessive force
- Defend officers from false accusations
After the controversial use of force case in Ferguson, Missouri, there is an outcry for all law enforcement officers to wear cameras. The White House wants millions of dollars invested in the effort (Dann and Rafferty). However, not every community is prepared to cope with the questions raised by this technology.
- When will the cameras be set to record?
- How will video footage be stored? For how long?
- Who decides when video data will be released to the public?
- What if the recording device malfunctions?
- How will the presence of cameras affect victims, witnesses, and suspects?
- How will the privacy rights of officers and the public be protected?
Body-worn cameras open up tremendous possibilities for documentation and transparency. My concern is that they could be used to trample privacy rights, try suspects and officers in the media, scare off victims and witnesses, and micromanage every aspect of law enforcement.
We must prepare policies and public expectations so that we protect privacy rights, set reasonable procedures for officers, and realize that every technology has its limits.
Agencies must be clear about when and how cameras will be used and share this with the public. We cannot record everything...not officers undercover, in a briefing, or at the urinal.
"No one wants to talk to you if everything is being recorded," said Larry Ellison, president of the Massachusetts Association of Minority Law Enforcement Officers" (Johnson and Smith).
We need to assure victims and witnesses that their videotaped comments are not subject to public records requests. But can we? Suspects are considered innocent until proven guilty, so video may need to be protected until it is used in court. The public should not expect that everything recorded today can be released on the Internet tonight.
Limits of the Technology
It is important to realize that as helpful as the technology can be, it will not resolve all issues. There will be times a camera malfunctions, records blurry images, or is turned off during an unexpected event. An editorial in Scientific American points out that "even when video images are available, they are not always conclusive." Not everyone who views footage will come away with the same determination.
Some police agencies have been using body cameras for years. Others are still experimenting on a small scale. Of 254 departments surveyed that use body cameras, The Police Executive Research Forum found that one-third have no written policies on their use (Hermann and Weiner). This is bad news for police and communities.
Carefully crafted policies and laws need to direct when and how video is captured and released to the public. We cannot jeopardize court cases or privacy rights to appease the public's appetite for information. Video has a valuable place in our justice system, but how far can it go toward building trust in communities?
- Board of Editors, Scientific American, "Cities Want Cops to Wear Cameras...," November 18, 2014.
- Cooper, Laura L., LauraLCooper.com, "Body Cams: An Instant Replay for Law Enforcement," October 17, 2013.
- Cooper, Laura L., The Nebraska Sheriff Magazine, "Body Cams: An Instant Replay for Law Enforcement," January 2014.
- Dann, Carrie and Andrew Rafferty, NBCNews.com, "Obama Calls for Police Body Cameras in Wake of Ferguson," December 1, 2014.
- Edwards, Jonathan, JournalStar.com, "Ferguson Brings Cops' Body Cams into Focus," November 29, 2014.
- Hermann, Peter and Rachel Weiner, "Issues over Police Shooting in Ferguson Lead Push for Officers and Body Cameras," Washingtonpost.com, December 2, 2014.
- Johnson, O'Ryan and Erin Smith, Officer.com, "Boston Brass, Union Fear Body Cameras," December 3, 2014.