'Accountability, Not Surveillance': Group Raises Flags Over Police Body Cameras

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'Accountability, Not Surveillance': Group Raises Flags Over Police Body Cameras

NYCLU among the stakeholders called to testify before Presidential Task Force on policing reform

(Photo: West Midlands Police/cc/flickr)

Police body cameras must be used as a tool for more police accountability, not a means of more surveillance, civil liberties advocates warned speaking before a President-appointed board on Saturday during a series of briefings to address policing reform.

Community leaders, activists and rights groups were among the witness stakeholders called to the University of Cincinnati this week to testify before the President's Task Force on 21st Century Policing on a broad swath of topics, from the 'use of force policy' to police body cameras to social media.

In the upheaval that followed the grand jury decision to not indict St. Louis police officer Darren Wilson in the August 9 shooting death of unarmed black teen Michael Brown, President Obama announced a series of initiatives aimed at stemming police violence including the increased use of police body cameras.

"We are concerned that, in the rush to adopt this new technology, departments and legislators are overlooking important privacy and accountability considerations," said Johanna Miller, advocacy director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, testifying before the panel Saturday.

As many local police departments rush to implement the use of police body-worn cameras (or BWCs), the panel warned that without clear guidelines, limits and oversight of their use, BWCs will only further impede the rights of frequently targeted populations.

In 2014, the Department of Justice (DOJ) and Police Executive Research Forum found that 63 of 500 surveyed police departments were either using or testing BWCs, and only one-third of those departments had written policies regarding their use.

Advocates have also noted that police violence has historically occurred even in the presence of a recording device. For instance, the fatal choking death of Eric Garner by NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo on July 17 was caught on video and shared widely. Despite the recording, Pantaleo was also not indicted.

Miller's testimony continued:

It has been suggested that knowing a BWC is in use can actually improve the behavior of police and civilians in street encounters. If measurable evidence indicates this effect is real, investment in BWCs could represent enormous progress in improving community-police relations. If they can also be used to achieve meaningful accountability for abuse by police officers, they will be one of the most valuable reform steps we can take.

The NYCLU recommends that the Task Force establish privacy protections for BWC use, appropriate access and retention rules, and fund pilot programs aimed at establishing best practices and maximizing officer accountability.

"Many Americans feel like this is a desperate time for police-community relations, but a complex technology like body cameras can’t be a quick fix," agreed executive director Donna Lieberman of the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) in a statement ahead of the hearings.

Following months of significant police violence, upheaval, and ongoing calls for justice, the panel is hosting a number of listening sessions to gain input to inform and advise the Task Force in developing their recommendations.

"The killings by police of Eric Garner and Akai Gurley in New York, Mike Brown in Ferguson, Tamir Rice, Tanisha Anderson and John Crawford in Ohio, Ezell Ford in Los Angeles—and Jessie Hernandez in Denver just this past Monday—have recently made the scope and systemic nature of the crisis of discriminatory and abusive policin g more transparent for many Americans," said Loyda Colon, co-director of New York-based community group, the Justice Committee, who testified on behalf of the coalition Communities United for Police Reform.

However, addressing a panel on Policing Policy and Oversight, Colon added that these recent killings simply highlight "racial and other discriminatory profiling and lack of civil rights enforcement that is systemic in police policies and practices across the country."

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