January 14, 2016 by

Camera-Ready? Open Questions on Police Body Cams

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© West Midlands Police, content modified and licensed under Creative Commons

Police body-worn cameras are all the rage. Civil liberties groups say they will increase police accountability. Communities of color say they will reduce police violence. Even many cops favor them, saying they will corroborate and justify police action. But as many are learning, cameras pose problems too. What is needed is a set of careful, transparent, and democratically formulated rules governing bodycam recording, access, and use.

Three issues stand out in particular: When should cameras be rolling, how long should footage be maintained, and in what form (if any) should it should be released to the public?

One of the biggest questions for bodycam programs is when to record and when not to record. It may seem intuitive that cameras should always be rolling when police are on duty. But what about when police are interviewing informants? What about when they are going into someone’s home or taking statements from an underage victim? Should an individual officer have discretion to turn off the camera?

This question cannot be answered without considering costs—particularly data storage costs. Consider what would happen if all NYPD patrol officers had cameras rolling whenever they were on duty. With 25,000 patrol officers doing five eight-hour shifts per week, it amounts to one million hours of footage every week. The data costs for such an operation would be astronomical. When Birmingham, Alabama, instituted a bodycam program, the cost of storage ($889,000) was five times the cost of the body cameras themselves (about $180,000), while the entire budget of the Birmingham Police department in 2015 was about $90 million. But even this amount of storage proved to be insufficient: the whole data allotment was used up within two months.

On the other hand, allowing officers too much discretion over when to record is also problematic. In New Orleans, body cameras were an integral part of a consent decree targeting police treatment of minorities. But a review by the independent monitor overseeing the settlement showed that in the first five months of the body cam program, camera-equipped officers only recorded 34 percent of use-of-force incidents. When a bodycam-wearing New Orleans police officer shot a man in the head during a traffic stop, she claimed that she had turned the camera off minutes earlier because she was nearing the end of her shift, despite a department policy requiring recording of all traffic stops. The Police Superintendent called the incident a “snafu,” while critics called it a “cover-up.” Whatever the truth in New Orleans, the problem is apparent. Selective recording negates the benefits of body cameras, raising the specter in many minds that they will become a one-sided tool that records only those interactions favorable to police.

Another crucial question is how long footage should be maintained, and how to make a system of data retention workable. The ACLU has been adamant that storage times for most types of footage should be measured in weeks, not months or years, because privacy concerns outweigh the advantage to be gained from systematic long-term retention. Retention periods also make a huge difference when it comes to cost, since a well-run system would automatically delete footage that is past the retention date and therefore free up server space for new footage. However, such a system requires detailed rules enabling footage that could potentially be used as evidence of a crime or officer misconduct to be flagged so it won’t be deleted.

Finally, there is the issue of who has access to the footage. Should it be subject to media requests? If so, who should foot the bill for the substantial cost of editing out private material depicting innocent civilians? Should a police officer be able to view footage before creating an incident report? Should a bodycam recording be subject to freedom of information laws? This issue recently came to the forefront after a shooting in Flagstaff, Arizona, where police officer Tyler Stewart’s death was recorded by his own bodycam. Because there was no concrete rule in place, the graphic footage ended up on YouTube, much to the dismay of the family and community.

The best solution—indeed the only solution—to these questions is to have careful policies in place, formulated with public input, detailing the who, what, where, when, and how of bodycam recording. These rules need to address when cameras should be rolling, how long footage is stored, and whether and in what form they are available to the public. This is exactly what happened in Carrboro, North Carolina, where the municipal government, the police, and the ACLU worked together to create a bodycam policy, aided by robust debate and community input. The comprehensive draft policy governs recording, retention, and access, while weighing in at only 12 pages. And the Policing Project is working with the Police Department in Camden County, New Jersey to tailor its policy to police needs and community sentiment.

Body cameras are not a panacea that will fix all our policing woes, but they can help. Still, sound rules to govern their use are absolutely necessary. To borrow the title of the ACLU position paper on body cams: “Police Body-Mounted Cameras: With Right Policies in Place, a Win for All.”