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New Debate on Police Body Cameras Pits Privacy Against Accountability

In face of police brutality epidemic, middle ground between two concerns remains elusive

Body cameras for police officers are a contentious issue in the search for solutions to police brutality. (Photo: Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

As law enforcement agencies around the country continue adding body cameras to their arsenals in response to a growing demand for accountability from police officers, questions and doubts over their efficacy are multiplying in tandem.

The latest challenge regards exactly how and when the public is able to see video footage of police brutality incidents.

In a feature published Friday, the Associated Press reports on the new quest to find middle ground between existing privacy laws—which protect the interests of civilians who did not consent to be recorded—and the heightened demand for responsibility among police officers.

AP's Eileen Sullivan writes:

A policy to release all police-recorded videos could mean footage of the inside of a person's home or a hospital would be available. But if the policy is not to release footage in order to protect a person's privacy, that could mean a video of an officer shooting someone would not be made public, defeating the main purpose of the use of these cameras.

[....] Some departments redact the faces of bystanders or those arrested, or blur a video so much that little is recognizable. Others won't release video if it's part of an ongoing investigation. Some policies allow officers to turn their cameras on and off.

As ACLU senior policy analyst Jay Stanley told AP, "Any policy that categorically shields or opens up body-camera footage is probably wrong." But in the face of such uncharted territory, the ideal solution remains unclear.

Further complicating matters is the role of individual state laws on privacy and public records.

In South Carolina, the shooting death of Walter Scott became a central case in the call for police accountability after the officer who killed Scott was revealed to have lied about the incident. Footage from officer Michael Slager's dashcam showed Scott running away from a traffic stop, but only a bystander's cellphone video revealed that Slager had shot Scott in the back.

In response to public outcry over the shooting, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley signed legislation requiring all officers to wear body cameras. But the new policy also says footage captured by those cameras will not be subject to the state's open records law—even though dashcam footage is.

That means media and members of the public cannot request body camera video or audio under South Carolina's Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) law. Instead, police departments are simply allowed to choose whether to release footage.

Giving officers discretion over how to use body cameras or when to give access to recordings "will cause harm," ACLU advocacy counsel Chad Marlowe wrote in an op-ed in May. For its part, the civil liberties group released a policy model (pdf) for the implementation and use of body cameras which they say both promotes transparency and protects privacy.

"There is much we must do to remedy the shortcomings of our nation's law enforcement system," Marlowe wrote. "The implementation of sound police body camera programs is just a small piece of that effort, but if done right, it will likely be an important and valuable step in the right direction."

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