Atlantic Cities

When Should Cops Be Required to Wear Cameras?

When Should Cops Be Required to Wear Cameras?
AP

A study conducted last year by the Rialto Police Department in Rialto, California, found that police officers who wear on-body cameras during their shifts are far less likely to use unnecessary force during stops. This, in turn, can also lead to officers having fewer complaints filed against them. It's fair to say that the use of unnecessary force not only frays the relationship between cops and communities, but also costs cities millions in lawsuits. Requiring police officers to wear cameras would seem like a no-brainer.

Unless, of course, you're a cop. In which case, maybe you don't want to be under constant surveillance. Maybe you'd like to talk department politics without creating a permanent record of that conversation for your boss. Or you're worried that the footage, even if it shows nothing illegal, could still be used against you down the line. You also might object to cameras if you're on the other side of one, and don't want police creating a record of everything in your home whenever they respond to a call.

The privacy concerns on both sides are complicated enough that the American Civil Liberties Union—which ardently supports police accountability measures—recently released recommendations for wearable police cameras to "ensure they protect the public without becoming yet another system for routine surveillance of the public." Here's what the ACLU recommends, issue by issue. 

Which cops should wear cameras? 

The ACLU recommends that cameras "be limited to uniformed officers and marked vehicles, so people know what to expect," but that "an exception should be made for SWAT raids and similar planned uses of force when they involve non-uniformed officers."

Should officers have to tell people that they're recording them? 

"Officers should be required, wherever practicable, to notify people that they are being recorded (similar to existing law for dashcams in some states such as Washington)," the ACLU says. "One possibility departments might consider is for officers to wear an easily visible pin or sticker saying 'lapel camera in operation' or words to that effect."

Can the cameras be used inside people's homes? 

Not all house calls are emergencies, so the ACLU recommends that police announce the use of cameras during non-emergency visits, and that during such visits, residents be allowed to request the camera be turned off. Both the announcement and the resident's request should be recorded. "Cameras should never be turned off in SWAT raids and similar police actions." 

How long should police departments retain camera data?

The ACLU recommends (with some caveats) that "[r]etention periods be measured in weeks not years, and video should be deleted after that period unless a recording has been flagged." Police departments should post their retentions policies online, so that people who have been recorded have a clear sense of the time window during which they can file a complaint. 

"Flagged data" would include footage of any incident "involving a use of force; that leads to detention or arrest; or where either a formal or informal complaint has been registered." This data should be kept for a much longer period, such as three years. 

Who should be able to "flag" an incident, insuring that it is retained long enough for investigation?

The ACLU recommends that any recording subject be able to flag a recording, as well as police departments themselves and third parties (such as watchdogs and journalists) "if they have some basis to believe police misconduct has occurred or have reasonable suspicion that the video contains evidence of a crime."

Should police be able to use camera footage in criminal investigations?

This area is obviously contentious, and the ACLU's recommendation is somewhat murky. The groups says that "use of recordings should be allowed only in internal and external investigations of misconduct, and where the police have reasonable suspicion that a recording contains evidence of a crime. Otherwise, there is no reason that stored footage should even be reviewed by a human being before its retention period ends and it is permanently deleted." 

Who should have the power to delete data? 

For starters, not the person wearing the camera. The ACLU recommends that "back-end systems to manage video data must be configured to retain the data, delete it after the retention period expires, prevent deletion by individual officers, and provide an unimpeachable audit trail to protect chain of custody, just as with any evidence."

Who should have access to recordings?

As with the ability to "flag" data, people have been recorded by the police should be able to acquire the footage in which they're featured. "People recorded by cop cams should have access to, and the right to make copies of, those recordings, for however long the government maintains copies of them," the ACLU says. "That should also apply to disclosure to a third party if the subject consents, or to criminal defense lawyers seeking relevant evidence." 

The group is far more reluctant to extend open records access to footage. "We don't want crime victims to be afraid to call for help because of fears that video of their officer interactions will become public or reach the wrong party." To that end, the ACLU recommends that in most cases, unredacted data be released to the public only with the subjects' permission. "If recordings are redacted, they should be discloseable."

In some cases, releasing an unredacted video without the subjects' permission—for instance, a video that shows excessive force—might be necessary. "In such cases the need for oversight outweighs the privacy interests at stake."

Top image: An on-body camera worn by a member of the Oakland Police Department. AP. 

Mike Riggs is a former staff writer at The Atlantic Cities. All posts »

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