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How Do Police-Worn Body Camera Programs Actually Work?

The use of police-worn body camera programs raises difficult questions, which have yet to be answered uniformly.

  • Brynne O'Neal
February 5, 2016

The shoot­ing death of Michael Brown last August in Ferguson, Mo., ignited a public debate about police video cameras. The incid­ent was not video­taped. Two compet­ing narrat­ives emerged. In one, Brown, an 18-year-old unarmed black man, was approach­ing officer Darren Wilson with his hands up, only to be shot six times. In another, ulti­mately suppor­ted by a Depart­ment of Justice invest­ig­a­tion, Wilson shot Brown after Brown reached through the window of the officer’s cruiser, struggled for Wilson’s gun, retreated, and then appeared to lunge at him again. A grand jury invest­ig­a­tion that brought no charges against Wilson did little to soothe the community uproar.

By contrast, former Univer­sity of Cincin­nati police officer Ray Tens­ing’s fatal shoot­ing of Samuel Dubose was captured by a body-worn video camera. Tens­ing pulled over Dubose for a routine traffic stop. Tens­ing told officers at the scene that he fired one fatal shot because “he was being dragged by the vehicle and had to fire his weapon,” But the Hamilton County prosec­utor said the drag­ging story was a lie.  When he announced Tens­ing’s indict­ment for murder, he played Tens­ing’s body camera video. “Every day now, I’m going to be march­ing for video cams,” Dubose’s sister said when the charges were announced.

The Cincin­nati case shows the prom­ise of body-worn cameras (BWC’s). They have the poten­tial to build community confid­ence and police account­ab­il­ity. Yet BWCs also raise diffi­cult ques­tions. When should police record an encounter? Must they tell the people involved? If the video is not used as evid­ence, how long should the police hold on to it? What are the privacy protec­tions for civil­ians caught on camera? How much access should the public have to the video? And what are the implic­a­tions of outfit­ting thou­sands of police officers with a surveil­lance device? The conver­sa­tion has been hindered by a lack of publicly avail­able inform­a­tion about how BWC programs actu­ally oper­ate.

The Bren­nan Center for Justice recently completed a compre­hens­ive review of BWC policies from twenty-four police depart­ments around the coun­try. We created an inter­act­ive map and series of charts that allow detailed compar­ison of policies, to help police depart­ments, city coun­cils, analysts, activ­ists, and academ­ics. When it comes to whether BWC policies are more likely to promote account­ab­il­ity or to intrude on privacy, these docu­ments show that the devil is in the details. We review here some high­lights and common themes, and encour­age you to dip — or delve — into the accom­pa­ny­ing mater­i­als to learn more.

To begin with, when do the cameras record? Almost all depart­ments require law enforce­ment actions, such as arrests or searches, to be recor­ded, while two — Char­lotte and Ferguson — require all citizen inter­ac­tions to be recor­ded. The major­ity permit record­ing at any other time at the officer’s discre­tion, with some excep­tions. Only five policies require officers to notify subjects that they are being recor­ded; six more encour­age it.

When are officers prohib­ited from record­ing? In the absence of confront­a­tion, most depart­ments forbid record­ing in places such as bath­rooms and locker rooms, and some limit record­ing in places such as hospit­als and doctor’s offices. While private homes tradi­tion­ally receive the strongest consti­tu­tional protec­tion against police intru­sion, only four policies require a resid­ent’s permis­sion to record in a home during a “consent search” (a search that takes place pursu­ant to the owner’s consent, versus a warrant). One city, Char­lotte, requires officers to cease a consent search alto­gether if the resid­ent does not consent to record­ing. Four­teen do not address homes at all, and four expli­citly say the resid­ent’s consent to record is not required. No city forbids record­ing in homes alto­gether. When it comes to victims of domestic viol­ence, policies vary. Several allow the officer to exer­cise discre­tion not to record “sens­it­ive” victims, whereas one — San Diego — specific­ally instructs officers to record domestic viol­ence victims with seri­ous injur­ies, to account for the possib­il­ity that these victims may not agree to testify later.

Even record­ing people in public raises concerns if it chills the exer­cise of their First Amend­ment rights. Six of the twenty-four depart­ments have limits on record­ing First Amend­ment activ­ity, such as protests, or using the record­ings to identify law-abid­ing parti­cipants. The New York Police Depart­ment’s latit­ude to record is limited by court-ordered guidelines because of a history of monit­or­ing polit­ical activ­ity and keep­ing files on activ­ists. Other depart­ments may wish to consider imple­ment­ing similar rules as a prevent­ive meas­ure. Dallas and D.C. require police to record all First Amend­ment assem­blies they attend in their offi­cial capa­city, although D.C. prohib­its use of the foot­age to identify law-abid­ing parti­cipants.

Of course, when to record is only half the picture — we must also look at what happens to the recor­ded video, both within and outside of the depart­ment.

First, can officers watch their BWC videos before making reports or state­ments? Public debate contin­ues, with some express­ing concern that police involved in miscon­duct will be able to tailor their stor­ies to match the evid­ence, and others suggest­ing that prohib­it­ing officers from watch­ing their own videos will breed mistrust and discour­age officer cooper­a­tion. Whatever the merits of each side, the policies show a strong trend. Fifteen depart­ments guar­an­tee officers the right to view their videos before writ­ing reports or giving a state­ment to internal or crim­inal invest­ig­at­ors, includ­ing after a use-of-force incid­ent or a civil­ian death. Five allow view­ing for reports, but require an officer to give a state­ment after a seri­ous incid­ent before seeing the video, or make view­ing contin­gent on permis­sion from an invest­ig­ator or prosec­utor. We also found that many depart­ments sharply limit the abil­ity of super­visors to view BWC video — some can only view if there is a complaint or if the officer flags a video — and to discip­line officers based on it. To be sure, no one wants their boss peer­ing over their shoulder as they work; at the same time, these policies high­light a poten­tial tension between argu­ments that cameras will enhance police account­ab­il­ity and the actual guidelines in place.

Many have argued that release of BWC videos will help increase police account­ab­il­ity to the public. However, these record­ings show sens­it­ive moments in people’s lives, and releas­ing them publicly can pose major privacy concerns. This makes it essen­tial to exam­ine the process for public release.

In theory, the process for releas­ing videos outside the depart­ment is determ­ined by state or local law. At least four states we reviewed (which include six of the cities we survey), plus D.C., have stat­utes that expli­citly address the release of videos from body-worn cameras. Else­where, manage­ment of the videos is governed both by laws limit­ing release of evid­ence in an active crim­inal case and laws making govern­ment records access­ible to the public. Where neither the law nor the depart­ment’s policy specific­ally addresses videos, it may be unclear how these general laws apply.

Moreover, in prac­tice, police depart­ments have a lot of discre­tion. Videos have been released when they make the police look good; when they don’t, they may still be released if there is intense public demand. Many depart­ments have managed to avoid release despite media and activ­ist pres­sure. Conversely, some cities have innov­ated to increase trans­par­ency; Seattle, for instance, releases videos online that have been blurred so indi­vidu­als are not recog­niz­able.

How long can the foot­age be kept? The ACLU recom­mends that unless video is marked for reten­tion for evid­ence or at the request of a subject it should be deleted after six months to minim­ize the risks to privacy, whether from hack­ing or from misuse or abuse by the depart­ment itself. On the flip side, some depart­ments are opting to keep recor­ded video for multiple years, in case a citizen complaint or civil rights charge is filed. Eight depart­ments keep videos that are not evid­ence and not likely to be subject to a complaint for 180 days or less. Seven keep them for one or two years. Ten of the depart­ments do not say.

The above factors are only some of the consid­er­a­tions that enter into the public debate over body-worn cameras. Inter­ested in the rules that govern facial recog­ni­tion tech­no­lo­gies, privacy protec­tions for victims of sexual assault, proced­ures for audit­ing the videos, or others? Check out our map and five charts with twenty total categor­ies to find the depart­ments and trends that matter to you.

(Photo: Flickr/Util­ity)

Blog post edited Febru­ary 23, 2016.