Who Will They Serve? Warnings Mount That Body Cameras Could Do More Harm Than Good

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Who Will They Serve? Warnings Mount That Body Cameras Could Do More Harm Than Good

Though civil liberty and racial justice advocates say additional ways to hold police accountable are welcome, the possible negative implications of equipping officers with body cameras should not be ignored

"Unfortunately," warns the ACLU, "the violence, injustice, and inequity that plague our system of law enforcement will not be solved simply by affixing tiny cameras to officers' lapels." (Photo: Reuters/Rick Wilking )

Though use of body cameras for the nation's police officers has been put forth as a key reform that could increase accountability for law enforcement agencies and help curb episodes of police brutality, a new policy framework released by the ACLU on Thursday warns that without proper implementation the widespread deployment of such devices could actually do more than good for the people and communities most often targeted by aggressive forms of policing.

The recommendations by the prominent civil liberties group come in the form of "model legislation" that could be adopted by local or state governments or police departments themselves.

"If police officers are given discretion as to when to turn on and off their cameras and key moments go uncaptured when violence erupts, they will cause harm. If video footage is captured but state laws or law enforcement policies prohibit the public from viewing it, they will cause harm. And if body camera videos are released en masse, resulting in the widespread violation of American's privacy with no public benefit — except perhaps to fans of TMZ and COPS-style reality shows — they will cause harm." —Chad Marlow, ACLU"Policymakers nationwide have been asking for a plug-and-play model policy that shows them how to best balance the promotion of police accountability with the protection of privacy," said Chad Marlow, an advocacy and policy counselor for the group. "This is precisely what the ACLU is offering them today."

In the wake of high-profile killings of unarmed individuals like black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri last year and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement which seeks to end impunity for officers who engage in excessively violent—and too often deadly—uses of force, the idea that wider availability of body cameras for officers was a solid policy idea garnered national support. However—and though it supports the increased use of such devices in part—the ACLU warns that a number of possible negative consequences of equipping large numbers of government officials, especially police officers, with body cameras should not be overlooked.

With a focus on privacy issues and the possible misuse of the cameras by officers and the departments they work for, the ACLU model bill addresses a series of concerns and offers policies designed to make sure the devices actually serve the communities in which they are used and not simply the police being asked to wear them.

According to the ACLU, the encroachment of an ever-expanding surveillance state should not be forgotten, even as the nation takes seriously the plight of those who suffer most at the hands of police violence. As Marlow explains in a blog post Thursday:

Unfortunately, the violence, injustice, and inequity that plague our system of law enforcement will not be solved simply by affixing tiny cameras to officers' lapels. In fact, without the proper policies in place, the widespread deployment of police body cameras could do more harm than good. If body cameras are used to cast a net of roving surveillance over communities of color and low-income neighborhoods, they will cause harm. If police officers are given discretion as to when to turn on and off their cameras and key moments go uncaptured when violence erupts, they will cause harm. If video footage is captured but state laws or law enforcement policies prohibit the public from viewing it, they will cause harm. And if body camera videos are released en masse, resulting in the widespread violation of American's privacy with no public benefit — except perhaps to fans of TMZ and "COPS" style reality shows — they will cause harm.

If, however, police body cameras are deployed within the framework of a well-considered policy that strikes the proper balance between promoting transparency and protecting privacy, police body cameras might just do some good. To that end, and in response to overwhelming demand, the ACLU is releasing a model bill for use by state legislatures and local police departments to guide the development of their laws, policies, and procedures on the use of body cameras. This model bill is far more than a wish list — it is a comprehensive plug-and-play policy for those seeking to implement a sound police body camera program.

The ACLU is not alone in its various concerns about the use of such cameras. Though the specific language of the model legislation was put forth by the group, they follow closely a set of principles issued last week by a broader coalition of civil rights groups calling for serious review and consideration of law enforcement’s use of these devices.

"To ensure mobile cameras are used to help eradicate discriminatory policing and protect civil rights," the coalition said in a statement, "[we] are calling for camera policies to be developed publicly and to make sure that certain footage is made available to the public and the press. The groups also say that police departments must commit to a set of well-defined purposes for camera use, and need to specify clear operational policies for recording, retention, and access."

Speaking on behalf of the coalition, Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said the suggested guidelines would "help ensure that cameras are tools for accountability—not instruments of injustice." And added, "Without fair and transparent standards for the use of body worn cameras, police departments risk exacerbating the problems they are seeking to fix."

And Malkia Cyril, executive director of the the Center for Media Justice, added, "It’s clear that body-worn cameras are not the answer. Civil and human rights protections against high-tech profiling and surveillance are. Body cameras aren’t a viable substitute for comprehensive police reform in the 21st century, and in fact may supercharge the potential for high-tech racial profiling and surveillance."

To ensure that police-operated cameras are used to enhance civil rights, the coalition's five-point policy states that police departments and those charged with their oversight must do the following:

1. Develop camera policies in public with the input of civil rights advocates and the local community. Current policies must always be publicly available, and any policy changes must also be made in consultation with the community.

2. Commit to a set of narrow and well-defined purposes for which cameras and their footage may be used. In particular, facial recognition and other biometric technologies must be carefully limited: if they are used together with body cameras, officers will have far greater visibility into heavily policed communities—where cameras will be abundant—than into other communities where cameras will be rare. Such technologies could amplify existing disparities in law enforcement practices across communities.

3. Specify clear operational policies for recording, retention, and access, and enforce strict disciplinary protocols for policy violations. While some types of law enforcement interactions (e.g., when attending to victims of domestic violence) may happen off-camera, the vast majority of interactions with the public—including all that involve the use of force—should be captured on video. Departments must also adopt systems to monitor and audit access to recorded footage, and secure footage against unauthorized access and tampering.

4. Make footage available to promote accountability with appropriate privacy safeguards in place. At a minimum: (1) footage that captures police use of force should be made available to the public and press upon request, and (2) upon request, footage should be made available in a timely manner to any filmed subject seeking to file a complaint, to criminal defendants, and to the next-of-kin of anyone whose death is related to the events captured on video. Departments must consider individual privacy concerns before making footage available to broad audiences.

5. Preserve the independent evidentiary value of officer reports by prohibiting officers from viewing footage before filing their reports. Footage of an event presents a partial—and sometimes misleading—perspective of how events unfolded. 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.

With an analysis expressing their reluctance to endorse the rapid deployment of police-worn cameras, researchers Danah Boyd and Alex Rosenblat, who have looked closely at communities where body cameras are already widely used, penned an op-ed for The Atlantic last week and explained:

Public consensus is clear: Policing practices must be challenged and policing abuses must end. The American people are now immersed in data showing the costs of policing on our society, particularly for communities of color. We also know that, if history serves, the visibility of these endemic issues won’t continue forever. As a result, there’s a need to act and an opportunity to push for change presented by the public’s attention to the deadly use of police force against black men and the #blacklivesmatter movement.

As researchers, we recognize that the urgent push for police-worn body cams stems from this important moment and that pushing for hesitancy, assessment, and a slow roll-out isn’t publicly desirable. Yet after analyzing the dynamics of surveillance and power over many years, we can’t in good conscience celebrate the desire to go full-speed ahead. While we are fully in favor of citizen video as a tool for raising awareness, generating action, and galvanizing communities to push for accountability, we don’t believe that police-worn body cams will achieve anywhere near the same outcomes. Instead, we worry that they will be expensive distractions that are used to do more harm than good.

What the ACLU's Marlow argues is that the pitfalls of the widespread use of body cameras must be acknowledged in order for their possible benefit to be realized. If the the devices "are deployed within the framework of a well-considered policy that strikes the proper balance between promoting transparency and protecting privacy," he said, "police body cameras might just do some good."

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