Conflicting accounts over the circumstances that led to the police shooting of Mike Brown in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson have amplified an ongoing public discussion around the use of body-wearable cameras, or BWCs, by police officers.
Over the past week, a chorus of politically diverse voices from media outlets as varied the National Review and ThinkProgress have weighed in on the issue, with most agreeing that the public would benefit from requiring officers to record their encounters with citizens. As evidence of the cameras’ effectiveness, the Wall Street Journal cited data out of the California city of Rialto — one of three municipalities that have conducted studies on BWC use — that showed the devices led to a 60 percent drop in police use of force and an 88 percent reduction in civilian complaints.
Fueled by the promise of similar results, more law enforcement agencies are eating the cost of BWCs (estimated at $450-$900 per camera) and outfitting their officers with the devices.
According to a report from NBC News, at least 1,000 police agencies in the U.S. now rely on wearable camera technology to promote transparency and aid in criminal investigations. Police in Philadelphia are gearing up for a limited rollout of BWCs (transit cops in the city began field trials in July); and this week New York City Public Advocate Letitia James called for a $5 million expansion of a court-ordered BWC pilot mandated under the city’s stop-and-frisk settlement.
As of Thursday, a petition asking the Obama administration to mandate all state, county and local police to wear a camera was approaching 140,000 signatures.
In cautiously supporting wearable cameras, many commentators point to a number of challenges, such as ensuring officers are recording everything they are supposed to, and addressing the potential privacy fallout around how video data is used, stored and shared. Some experts worry that in the wake of Ferguson, questions about privacy run the risk of being supplanted by a justified eagerness to curb police abuses.
“The privacy concerns have been somewhat neglected and overridden by the fervor for police accountability and what proponents say will be an objective view of alleged incidents of police misconduct,” said George Fachner, police research scientist at CNA Corporation, which conducts data-driven research in the public interest. “Privacy advocates will want to shape police policy so that BWCs cannot be used as surveillance tools or for wide-net intelligence gathering.”
One of the more comprehensive assessments of the possible privacy implications of BWCs was carried out last year by Michael D. White — a professor of criminology at Arizona State — on behalf of the the Office of Justice Programs (OJP) Diagnostic Center.
White concluded, rather unsatisfactorily, that “the impact of the technology on citizen privacy is not fully understood.” He added that more research is required since most of the claims made by advocates and critics of the BWCs remain untested.
“Simply put, there is not enough evidence to offer a definitive recommendation regarding the adoption of body-worn cameras by police,” he wrote.
For their part, civil liberties groups — including the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation — have offered tacit support for BWCs if the right protocols are put into place.
“Although we generally take a dim view of the proliferation of surveillance cameras in American life, police on-body cameras are different because of their potential to serve as a check against the abuse of power by police officers,” the ACLU noted in a 2013 briefing paper.
“While we have opposed government video surveillance of public places, for example, we have supported the installation of video cameras on police car dashboards, in prisons, and during interrogations,” the group said.
But while prisons and police stations may not qualify as public spaces (although a case could certainly be made to the contrary) most police stops do occur in the public domain, and often inside people’s homes. Since only a small percentage of those stops end in arrest, if video data is improperly handled, body cameras have the potential, at least, to violate the privacy of hundreds of thousands of Americans a year who have not been charged with a crime.
The ACLU acknowledges that potential, warning of “significant privacy implications” if policies governing the use of body-mounted cameras are not firmly in place. The group has some sensible recommendations, which you can read here.
To date there are no universal protocols governing the use of body-wearable cameras and the video data they generate, leaving individual departments to hash it out as they go along.
That alone is enough to raise concerns. Law enforcement has a wobbly track record when it comes to transparency surrounding its electronic surveillance methods. For proof one need look no further than the ongoing battle between civil libertarians and police agencies over Automated License Plate Readers (ALPRs), which, not unlike BWCs, capture and store large amounts of visual data, most of it involving innocent civilians.
Privacy advocates and reporters (myself included) have run into roadblocks when trying to get even the most basic information about police use of ALPRs. To cite one particularly egregious example, in Los Angeles earlier this year, police and sheriff’s department officials responded to a joint request from the ACLU and EFF for a week’s worth of ALPR data by arguing that “all [license plate] data is investigatory,” thereby exempting it from public scrutiny.
It’s hard to imagine that similar shenanigans wouldn’t be employed to stymie access to information about BWC data.
Yet it’s also hard to argue that the potential drawbacks of body-mounted cameras outweigh their benefits if care is taken to avoid rushing into mass adoption of BWC technology before a proper foundation has been established.
Dustin Slaughter, co-editor of The Declaration, a Philadelphia-based news site that covers privacy and surveillance issues — voices some of the unanswered questions yet to be addressed:
“Will it be a scenario where, like Philadelphia Police Department’s automatic license plate reader program, they can store data for up to a year even if you’re not under suspicion? Also, will federal agencies outside of the police department have unfettered access to the footage? As for disciplinary procedures for cops who selectively activate and deactivate body cameras, should we hold our breath that there will be any true meaningful policies to hold those officers accountable?”
With America now demanding more police accountability, time is running out to answer them. At the request of the Department of Justice, the Police Executive Research Forum — which took up the issue of BWCs at a forum in Philadelphia last October — is in the process of developing guidelines. And the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies says it too is reviewing literature for the development of future standards. The sooner they can commit them to paper the better.
Christopher Moraff writes on politics, civil liberties and criminal justice policy for a number of media outlets. He is a reporting fellow at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a frequent contributor to Next City and Al Jazeera America.