Those in the civil rights community are glad to see body-worn cameras embraced as a way of increasing police accountability, but some say without meaningful oversight and thoughtful regulation, the technology poses problems.
The public call for greater accountability is not one police departments around the country have been quick to ignore. With several high-profile incidents calling into question policing tactics and policies, many agencies have turned to body-worn cameras as a way to document their daily interactions with the public.
But in the rush to meet public demands for transparency, the question of whether or not these departments are truly addressing the larger implications of camera technology remains open for debate.
A new report published by the Leadership Conference, a coalition of civil rights and labor groups, evaluated 25 police departments around the country on their uses of body-worn cameras and found that all have room to improve when it comes to the relatively new technology.
Wade Henderson, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference, said the recently completed Police Body-Worn Cameras: A Policy Scorecard report was not designed to criticize the departments, but rather to offer a look at the opportunities for their policies and procedures to better address key civil rights concerns.
Though the study looked at the 15 largest departments and 10 other departments of particular policy interest, it only encompassed a small portion of the number of agencies deploying the technology nationwide.
“Since the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., in August of last year, our nation has seen a growing movement to address policing practices that have a disproportionately negative impact on low-income communities, communities of color and African Americans in particular,” Henderson said in a Monday morning conference call.
The scorecard report, released the morning of Monday, Nov. 9, relied on eight standards to independently evaluate the more than two dozen departments. These criteria included: whether the agency had published its policy publicly; whether policies limited when officers could decide not to record an incident; whether there was the consideration of personal privacy; clear terms as to when officers could review footage; policies for the limited retention of un-flagged footage; policies against tampering and misuse of footage; policies for access outside of the department; and limitations regarding the use of biometric technology.
Henderson went on to say that unlike citizen-captured video, the footage from the body-worn cameras is almost exclusively aimed at the citizens, not the officers.
“There is a temptation to create a false equivalency between these citizen-recorded videos and the body-worn cameras operated by law enforcement. That is simply not the case,” he said. “Body-worn cameras are not operated by concerned citizens and are not recording officers, they are directed at members of the community.”
Among many issues outlined in the scorecard report, the need to establish reasonable limits on the use of biometric technologies and officer viewing policies were of major concern for the civil rights coalition.
Experts cited the fear that biometric technology, such as facial recognition, voice recognition and other identification software, could ultimately turn a tool for greater accountability into a tool for real-time surveillance.
“Facial recognition and other biometric technologies should be limited," said Sakira Cook, policy counsel for the Leadership Conference. "If those technologies are used together with body cameras, it could actually intensify stark disparities in surveillance and more heavily policed communities of color."
According to the report, Maryland’s Baltimore Police Department was the only agency in the study group to address and limit the use of biometric technology in conjunction with officer-issued cameras.
The group also stressed the need for departments to establish strict policies as to when officers could review footage to prevent the tailoring of reports to match footage.
Harlan Yu, principle with communications consultant Upturn, said that pre-report viewing -- viewing footage prior to the filing of an officer’s incident report -- creates an uneven playing field. "And in the worst case," Yu added, "an officer could conform his or her report to match only what showed in the video rather than having the report be an independent account of what he or she actually saw."
Yu also mentioned the implication of personal privacy concerns in cases of sexual assault or domestic violence. He argued that responding officers should have a clear set of guidelines for the use of cameras in these sensitive cases.
“There’s a worry in the civil rights community that cameras will capture individuals in some of the worst moments of their lives,” he said. “Think of an officer who arrives on a call to find a victim of a sex crime or heated domestic dispute. So, departments need to be extremely thoughtful about the privacy impact that cameras have.”
Though the scorecard was not meant to rank departments on their implementation of technology or policies, Yu hesitantly pointed to Parker, Colo., as having the most comprehensive policy among the 25 departments. Atlanta, Ga., and Ferguson, Mo., were both cited as having the least “thought out” body-worn camera policies.
“If you look at the scorecard in totality, every department has room for improvement. From our perspective, body cameras are one tool that can be used to increase accountability and transparency in policing,” Cook said. “And if that’s going to be a tool to achieve that purpose, then we have to be really cognizant of the policies we’re putting in place and ensuring that policy protects people in encounters they have with police, but also allow for the public to be part of the process.”