Police Body-Worn Camera Policies
Body-worn cameras (BWCs) for police have been getting substantial publicity lately. In national protests spurred by the deaths of unarmed civilians at the hands of police officers, activists and families are calling for greater police accountability. Meanwhile, some police want proof of their perspective in a tense situation to avoid what they see as unfair blame. The increasing frequency of bystander cell phone video contributes to the public demand for video evidence of police encounters. However, the existence of BWC video calls into play a complex series of questions about privacy, surveillance, and access to the footage.
Some police departments are rushing to implement body-worn camera programs now, while some have had these programs active for several years. Many are starting with pilots with a small number of their officers and one or more types of cameras to test out equipment and policies. All sides agree that it is important to have clear rules in place that tell officers when to record and to specify what will happen to the video. However, there is a complex debate over the contents of these policies.
To help foster and inform this discussion, we have pulled together body camera policies from many police departments that have made them publicly available, as well as model policies from several organizations. Click on each dot on the map to see key facts about each city's policy; the categories are described in more detail below. In addition, the charts linked below compare the policies in a number of areas, including those indicating major differences in the policies. For details, click on city names to read the policies in full. Additional policies will be added as they become available.
Police Body-Worn Camera Policies by City
Categories in Our Map
City: The policies that are linked to in this map outline how police will use body cameras. Some of them are active, department-wide policies that a particular police department has written for its officers (though cameras may not be available for every officer on the force). Others are pilot programs for a subset of officers; these cities are marked.
Time non-evidentiary video kept: In order for video to be used or released, it has to be preserved. Storage space for video is very expensive, however, and privacy and security concerns crop up with a large database of videos. The length of time potential evidence in a court case must be preserved is usually governed by local or state law. This category shows the time all other video is kept, which can be set either by policy or law.
Limits on recording victims, witnesses, or private situations: Some policies include restrictions on recording in circumstances with greater potential for abuse. It is valuable for police to have recordings of witness and victim statements, but recording also might make people reluctant to talk. Victims of domestic or sexual abuse may be especially concerned about privacy. In addition, most policies have some limits for places with heightened privacy expectations such as restrooms and locker rooms, and some provide special rules for recording inside a private home or other non-public area.
Can officer view video before making report or statement?: Many departments allow officers to view their video before making a report or statement, with the goal of the most accurate report possible. Moreover, the ability to view the footage can make police officers more comfortable wearing the cameras. Others suggest that accuracy would be increased by writing a report first to avoid influencing officer memory, and then potentially augmenting the report after watching the video. From a police accountability perspective, where an officer did use force inappropriately or where there is a discrepancy between accounts, permitting an officer to view the video before making a statement might allow him to tailor his statement to fit the evidence. Some policies allow viewing in all cases, some in none, and some separate out routine reports from serious incidents, allowing pre-report viewing in the former but not the latter.
Public access to records: One of the biggest questions surrounding BWCs is whether the video will be eligible for public release under public records laws. This question is often not at the discretion of the police departments, or specific to BWC video. Laws in each state address the release of public records, and large departments usually have existing policies and offices to deal with public records requests. BWC video, however, presents unique challenges and threats to privacy. Many state legislatures are debating bills to address this issue. In the meantime, departments have their own systems for how they deal with requests for video. Where policies are not clear on this issue, we have attempted to fill in some of the gaps with links to reporting on the issue. We expect this to change for many departments as laws are passed and technical and privacy issues crop up.
Recording Circumstances: This chart includes categories relating to when to record, including who wears the camera, circumstances when recording is required, notable omissions from the required circumstances list, the discretion an officer has to record at other times, and whether notification of recording is required.
Privacy and First Amendment Protections: Some departments have special circumstances when officers are not supposed to record. This chart pulls out policies for recording witnesses & victims, areas with heightened expectation of privacy, First Amendment activity, and use of facial recognition technology.
Accountability: A policy is only as good as its enforcement. These categories reflect how a department ensures its policy will be followed and how it uses body camera video for discipline. This chart includes whether officers must document the reason for lack of video, the consequences for violating policy, audit design, supervisory review of video, discipline exemptions for minor misconduct, and if an officers can view their video before writing reports or making statements.
Retention and Release: One of the most difficult pieces of designing a body-worn camera policy is deciding how long to keep the video and what to do with it. This chart includes categories for how long video is kept if it does not contain evidence of a crime, the rules for public access to videos, and limits on other sharing outside the department.
Security: BWCs can only provide valuable evidence if the policies ensure that evidence cannot be tampered with; and privacy protections are meaningless in the absence of security. While we are not in a position to evaluate the security of the electronic systems involved, we do note in this chart whether viewing of the video is logged, whether it requires an allowed purpose, and whether permission is required to make a copy of the video.
There are several aspects of BWC policies that are not included, either because of length or because they were uniform across policies and do not raise major civil liberties or civil rights concerns. For instance, most policies prohibit filming undercover informants or conversations between officers in break rooms or similar spaces. Policies also need to include technical details about how to charge cameras, who is responsible for their repair, etc. These rules serve an important purpose for police departments, but are not meaningful comparison points between policies. Reading a policy in full will give a more comprehensive understanding of any given program.
This is a living document—we anticipate adding more policies as they become available. Know of a publicly-available policy we are missing? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
We have access to several of the police department policies thanks to the work of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press to acquire and post the documents on its website. The Reporters Committee has done its own, public records-focused analysis of body-worn camera policies here.
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Map last updated: September 26, 2016