Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Addressing Concerns with Body Cameras

File:Lapel cameras (9816063276).jpgAfter the recent Michael Brown and Eric Garner, many have called for police to wear body cameras, and some police departments have already begun to implement the devices.  Body cameras would resolve most of the factual disputes that can arise during a police encounter; however, skeptics have brought to light several societal and privacy concerns that we must address before fully incorporating a camera into the police uniform.  First, departments must create strict protocol regarding the activation and deactivation of the body cameras.  Second, departments must establish proper standards for the use and storage of the video.

There are a number of issues regarding the activation and deactivation of body cameras.  The first is the ability of cops to turn off the cameras and then proceed to engage in unlawful behavior.  In Delray Beach, Florida, officers Justin Ranum and Matthew Booth approached Christine Chippewa. The officers took her down after Chippewa allegedly put a bag of cocaine in her mouth. The body camera footage then goes blank. Chippewa was sent to the hospital with missing teeth, and alleges that the officers not only stuck a flashlight in her mouth, but also kicked her head while she was on the ground. These two officers lost their jobs. While a presumption of wrongdoing and strict punishments for turning off body cameras is useful, it should not be absolute.  An inability to turn off the camera would lead to the second problem: a chilling effect on victims and reluctant witnesses.  It is very likely that victims and witnesses would be reluctant to approach officers if they thought they were being recorded.  Therefore, I recommend the following rule: officers are required to film, and turning off the camera creates a presumption of misconduct against the officer, but victims and reluctant witnesses could request the officer to turn off the camera since there is not the same risk of misconduct during these types of interactions.

The use and storage of video from body cameras has also raised concerns such as to how long officers should maintain the video record and whether officers should be permitted to disclose the video.  Reality shows such as COPS are a perfect example of the importance of some restraint in the dissemination of video.  Police interactions with individuals are usually very personal moments in the individual’s life, so it seems that it would be improper to permit the release of video into public, such as putting it online or on television.  But despite the highly personal nature of these interactions there is no Fourth Amendment protection in what police can see if they are legally there.  Additionally, police departments have expressed concern that officers will face unnecessary scrutiny if body cameras record all their activities.  While it may be good to use body cameras for significant altercations, using the cameras to punish minor violations (e.g. uniform violations) would be unnecessary and hurtful to police officers. Therefore, strict rules must regulate the use of video obtained from body cameras.

While body cameras could be implemented in a manner which balances privacy and societal interests, the technology is constantly changing, adding new issues every day.  Would the ability of facial recognition increase the privacy interest?  Likely not, but Fourth Amendment protections should keep up with law enforcement’s ability to obtain information.  For the above-mentioned reasons, police departments should adopt strong policies regarding the use of body cameras before their use is fully implemented.  These policies must address the chilling effect on those would ordinarily seek police assistance, provide respect for a person’s intimate moments, and ensure that the standards adequately serve the purposes of body cameras.

Jonathan Yunes
Associate Publications
 Editor, Criminal Law Practitioner

Photo by West Midlands Police, via Wikimedia Commons.

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