Many police departments are reaching for body cameras to boost transparency as scrutiny over bias and brutality intensifies. And while opponents of police violence are seeking better access to body cam footage, privacy advocates are warning about the risks of increased surveillance.
Most of the country’s major city police departments, 45 out of 68, already use body cameras, according to a report by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a coalition of organizations.
Policies on the use of body cameras differ from city to city, but the coalition’s report shows some general trends.
Police departments are doing a fairly good job of setting rules for when the cameras must and must not be used. Those rules should prevent officers from turning their cameras on and off as they please, while also protecting the vulnerable, like victims of sex crimes, from being taped without consent.
However, police departments mostly fail in regards to providing access to body cam footage for the public, or restricting the use of body cam footage for law enforcement.
Whether officers follow the policies is another question. Last month, 18-year-old Paul O’Neal was shot by Chicago police after a car chase. The officers who had cameras on didn’t capture the fatal shots, and the officer that shot O’Neal had his camera turned off.
The city’s police superintendent later said the officer only had the camera for about a week and probably wasn’t yet proficient with its use.
The video of the shooting (released Aug. 5) was the first footage of a fatal police shooting released under a new Chicago policy that calls for it to be made public within 60 days.
Most departments rely on local freedom of information laws to govern the release of footage.
But that curbs access too much, rights advocates say.
Freedom of information requests can take weeks or even months to resolve, and police departments can claim multiple exemptions to deny the requests.
In many cases police are not obligated to release any information related to pending investigations, though some states would allow the information to be released as long as it won’t hurt investigations.
Additionally, some states allow police departments to withhold information that is not connected to an active investigation.
Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck even said all body cam videos are evidence, and thus, in general, won’t be released unless requested for use in court, LA Times reported.
A North Carolina law stipulates body cam videos are not public record and leaves it up to police to decide if releasing them “is necessary to advance a compelling public interest.”
Only three major cities—Washington, Chicago, and Cincinnati—allow people who file complaints against police to view relevant body cam footage. The coalition would like to see all departments adopt that policy.
Preparing a video for release is a lengthy process—the footage needs to be reviewed and in some case redacted for privacy and safety issues, such as protecting the identity of minors.
That means some officers must be trained in using video-editing software and, depending on the request, may need to scan and redact hours of footage.
The Sarasota Police Department in Florida estimated it would take it more than five hours to review and edit one hour of footage, according to Herald-Tribune.
But this estimate may be inflated, as the department is allowed to charge $35 an hour for processing freedom of information requests. Michael Barfield, vice president of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Florida, sued the department when it wanted $18,000 to fulfill his request of 84 hours of body cam footage.
The ACLU branch didn’t respond to multiple requests for further details.
The coalition recommends that departments prohibit all forms of misusing of footage, including unauthorized access, tampering, copying, and deleting. It also wants access to the videos logged and audited, so an external party can check who, when, and why someone accessed the footage.
While most cities prohibit the misuse of footage, many don’t fully specify what misuse entails. The Phoenix Police Department, for example, “prohibits unauthorized access and distribution of footage, but does not expressly prohibit footage modification or deletion,” the report states. In practice, officers may be instructed that all forms of misuse are forbidden, but policies on paper may lack specifics.
Also, most cities allow police officers to check related footage before writing their reports. The coalition objects, stating this may influence how the officer describes what happened because the footage only shows part of the facts and can be misleading.
“Pre-report viewing could cause an officer to conform the report to what the video appears to show, rather than what the officer actually saw,” it states.
Most cities also don’t require the footage to be deleted after a specific period of time. This adds to concerns over increasing surveillance, as police would have a growing video archive of citizens who haven’t committed any crimes that would justify keeping records of their lives.
The coalition suggests police should keep the videos for a maximum of six months, unless it needs them for a legitimate purpose, such as an investigation. But it lists fewer than a dozen cities with policies to that effect.
An added concern for the coalition is if police start scanning all body cam footage for biometric data—for example, with face recognition software.
Body camera supplier Taser plans to integrate facial recognition technology, according to a Bloomberg report, though it’s not clear when.
That would mean a police officer walking down the street could be automatically transmitting footage from his or her camera to cloud storage, where it would be processed. The information could then be sent back to the officer in real time. For example, “Hey, that guy you just passed 20 feet ago has an outstanding warrant,” said Dan Zehnder, who runs the Las Vegas Police Department’s body camera program, in an interview with Bloomberg.
“Some of it is very Orwellian and very scary and will rattle the cages of civil libertarians around the country, but it’s coming,” Zehnder said.
And as police spend more time in poorer, minority communities, these populations would be disproportionately targeted, the Leadership Conference said.
The Leadership Conference only identified six cities that have placed restrictions on mining body cam footage for biometric data. And only one, Boston, prohibits it altogether.
Ironically, body cameras may do more to increase accountability among the general public than among police, as the footage will be used as evidence of crimes.
“The mentality is, ‘We are out to catch a cop doing something wrong,’ ” Zehnder said. “My belief is that in three to five years, we’ll no longer be talking about the accountability piece—we’ll be talking about the impact of the videos in the court system, which will be the largest consumer of these videos.”