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Looking at Police-Community Relations Through the Lens of Body-Worn Cameras

As protests have continued across the nation in the wake of back-to-back decisions by grand juries in Missouri and New York not to indict white police officers for their involvement in the deaths of unarmed black citizens, civil rights advocates, along with state leaders and the federal government, are exploring measures to better relationships between law enforcement and communities of color. Just last week, the Department of Justice released a revised version of its Guidance Regarding the Use of Race by Federal Law Enforcement Agencies.  Yesterday afternoon, President Obama signed an Executive Order to create the Task Force on 21st Century Policing, and following the Michael Brown jury decision, the President proposed a three-year $263 million investment package to increase, among other things, the use of body-worn cameras.

In light of the events leading to Eric Garner’s death, however, which were captured by mobile video in their entirety, there has been skepticism about the efficacy of body-worn cameras in preventing such fatal interactions with the police and also in providing sufficient evidence to juries.  Privacy advocates, along with police officers, have expressed concern about the new technology as well.  On the one hand, body cameras have greater potential to invade privacy if they are used in homes or to film bystanders, suspects, and victims during what can be volatile and extreme encounters.  On the other hand, cameras could reduce police use of force while protecting officers from false accusations of misconduct.  Moreover, cameras could provide vital data used over time to monitor, measure, and improve departments’ institutional practices.  On balance, video cameras on police officers seem to be a good thing with short- and longer-term benefits, but only if they are deployed within a policy framework that prioritizes citizens’ privacy.

Some police departments already have begun implementing the technology, one of whose officer-camera programs in California has been the subject of methodological research and even was praised by a federal court.  Several agencies and organizations also recently have released reports exploring the deployment and potential impact of body-worn cameras.  The following summarizes some of the findings and conclusions of these reports.*

Officer & Department Concerns

  • Trust.  Erosion of trust between officers and managers due to a feeling that there is over-monitoring and scrutinizing surveillance of officer activities, and potentially unsolicited supervisor review of video.

  • Workability.  Adding new equipment could be overly burdensome and restrict officers’ ability to perform their duties if cameras are cumbersome or difficult to operate.  In departments where other new technologies already have been introduced in recent years, learning to operate even more new devices may feel overwhelming and confusing.

  • Cost.  Buying and implementing body-worn cameras is expensive.  Along with the purchase cost, funding and staffing resources must be used for storing, managing, and disclosing video data, in addition to officer-training and program administration. 

Potential Benefits

  • Complaint Resolution.  Elimination of reliance on hearsay and unreliable eye-witness testimony by providing alternative and supplementary evidence that is objective, remains accurate over time, and is a mechanism for speedier resolution.

  • Officer Training.  For use in the training academy, continuing-education programs, and remedial measures to correct behavior of individual officers, camera footage gives real-life examples of both positive and negative interactions with citizens that are more relatable than simulations.

  • Lessen Civil Liability.  Reducing police misconduct, aiding investigations, and improving training ultimately should decrease the number of lawsuits filed against police officers.  Video evidence that eliminates disputes of fact leads to more settlements and less frivolous claims.

  • Improve Evidentiary Processes.  Create more accountability within the criminal justice system as to whether, for example, a confession was voluntary, a search was lawful, or a physical description matched a lookout profile, and improve prosecutors’ ability to bring strong cases.

  • Data-Driven Reviews.  Aid agencies in identifying and correcting within police departments institutional and individual-officer problems, such as racial profiling and pretextual stops, through administrative reviews driven by analysis of data gathered from video footage.

Policy Considerations

  • Effective Equipment.  Devices must have discernible audio components and effective camera placement.  Cameras worn on glasses might capture what an officer sees, whereas footage from a chest- or lapel-mounted camera might be steadier and easier to view.

  • Control Over Recordings.  Place limitations on police discretion to choose which encounters are recorded and restrict the ability to manipulate video recordings.  While continuous recording is not ideal from a privacy standpoint, police departments could mandate that every interaction with the public be recorded.  Such a policy must include clear consequences for failure to record an encounter, such as disciplinary action, and in instances of legal action, an evidentiary presumption against an officer or the exclusion of evidence.

  • Use of Recordings.  Allow video evidence to be used only in internal and external investigations of misconduct, and where the police have reasonable suspicion that a recording contains evidence of a crime.  Require subject consent for public disclosure of any recording.

  • Minimization of Data Collection.  Restrict video collection to lessen potential invasions of privacy, especially for sensitive recordings that show, for example, private homes or embarrassing behavior.  Making cameras clearly visible, limiting them to uniformed officers, and notifying citizens of camera recording could help avoid interactions resulting in sensitive footage.

  • Minimization of Data Retention.  Retain data no longer than necessary and only for the purpose for which it was initially collected, with an underlying assumption that for most police encounters with the public, preserving video evidence is not needed.

Because technologies and resources will vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, clearly there is no universal solution for implementing body cameras in police departments  across the nation.  Policies and procedures meeting the needs of individual police forces and also the communities they serve are necessary, however, these findings provide basic considerations and an instructive comparative framework from which departments can begin to craft their own programs.

The findings and conclusions summarized herein were taken in part from the following publications:  “Self-Awareness to Being Watched and Socially-Desirable Behavior:  A Field Experiment on the Effect of Body-Worn Cameras on Police Use-of-Force,” Rialto Police Chief Tony Farrar (Mar. 2013); “Police Body-Mounted Cameras:  With Right Policies in Place, a Win For All,” American Civil Liberties Union (Oct. 2013); “Enhancing Police Accountability Through an Effective On-Body Camera Program for MPD Officers,” D.C. Police Complaints Board (May 2014); “Police Officer Body-Worn Cameras:  Assessing the Evidence,” U.S. Department of Justice Office of Justice Programs Diagnostic Center (Aug. 2014); “Civil Rights, Big Data, and Our Algorithmic Future,” Robinson + Yu, (Sep. 2014); “Implementing a Body-Worn Camera Program,” U.S. Department of Justice Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (Oct. 2014).

© 2019 Covington & Burling LLP

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