Scorecard Highlights Need for Body Camera Policy Improvements

A recently released scorecard shows that many local jurisdictions are behind in their policies around police body-worn cameras, according to civil rights and policy experts.

by / August 2, 2016
Courtesy Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights/Upturn

The conversation around body-worn cameras has exploded as the direct result of several high-profile police shootings in recent months, and has many asking if large departments are deploying the relatively new technology appropriately.

From policies meant to protect privacy and outline when officers are required to record an encounter to who is able to review footage, civil rights advocates evaluated 50 large departments where municipal police agencies are excelling and where they are falling short.

In the latest iteration of the Police Body Worn Cameras: A Policy Scorecard, researchers from the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and Upturn, a Washington, D.C.-based public policy consultant, looked at where cities need to focus efforts around body-worn cameras.

Though no jurisdiction received stellar marks for their body camera policies, Wade Henderson, president and CEO of the civil and human rights conference, said three jurisdictions stood out for their complete lack of a public-facing policy: Aurora, Colo., Detroit and Pittsburgh.

“Residents of these cities should be very concerned about the lack of transparency and accountability on how these cameras are used,” Henderson said during a press call. “These police departments are enhancing surveillance of innocent people throughout their cities with no accountability for how the footage is used, when the cameras must be turned on or off, if they are videotaping victims during incredibly personal and sensitive moments, or what if any consequences there would be for officers using their cameras inappropriately.”

The study of each city was based around eight key factors: whether a policy was publicly available; whether policy allowed officer discretion when it comes to recording an incident; whether the policy addresses personal privacy concerns; whether an officer is allowed to review footage; whether there are limits placed on the retention of non-flagged footage; whether there are clear prohibitions against tampering with or deleting footage; whether footage is available for review by individuals filing a complaint against the department; and whether there are limits to the use of biometric technologies. 

Two cities — Ferguson, Mo., and Fresno, Calif. — failed to meet any of the criteria outlined by the research effort.

Of these key factors, local agencies have largely failed to address the many of these larger issues surrounding police body-worn cameras, said Harlan Yu, principal at Upturn. Despite what Yu calls a rapid adoption of the video technology, departments have neglected to ensure the tools are not used questionably.   

“One of the main selling points for body-worn cameras is their promise to bring transparency and accountability to community-police interactions," Yu said, "but body-worn cameras are not a panacea and they don’t automatically bring about accountability. In order for cameras to live up to their promise, departments have to carefully craft policy safeguards to guide the use of these cameras and the footage that they produce.”

While many people might not consider the deeper implications of officers reviewing footage before filing a written report, both Yu and Henderson said the practice offers an unfair advantage and makes the testimony of others involved seem less credible.

“Officers should be prohibited from viewing footage until after reports are filed," Henderson said. "Footage can be misleading or incomplete and allowing officers to preview footage provides an opportunity to conform reports to what the video appears to show rather than what the officer recollects."

Yu and Henderson also took issue with the lack of policy limitations when it came to biometric technologies. Yu said industry plans to include facial recognition capabilities into some body-worn cameras would take devices past a tool for accountability and transparency, and effectively turn them into surveillance devices.

According to the scorecard, only the Boston Police Department had taken policy steps to disallow the future use of biometric identification features.

“Manufacturers like Taser have suggested that they plan to build facial recognition into their camera systems in the near future," Yu said, "and this means that officers on the beat could scan faces on the street in real time to identify individuals or perform a broad face search across months and months of archived footage to search for associations and other evidence."

When asked whether select state legislation aimed at limiting body-worn camera footage from the public record was cause for concern, Yu said efforts to restrict video was concerning, especially as it relates to use-of-force incidents and complaint cases.

“That is one of the most concerning trends that we are seeing…,” he said. “We are seeing that across the country. Obviously, there is a balance that needs to be had here with privacy, personal privacy of those being recorded in the community.”

Yu went on to say that many of the public record laws throughout the states have not been updated to consider the implications of body-worn cameras. While he urges state legislatures to revisit the issue, he said the trend toward limiting the footage outright is "a disturbing one."

Eyragon Eidam Web Editor

Eyragon Eidam is the Web editor for Government Technology magazine, after previously serving as  assistant news editor and covering such topics as legislation, social media and public safety. He can be reached at eeidam@erepublic.com.