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Cops Wearing Cameras: What Happens When Privacy and Accountability Collide?

Law enforcement agencies across the nation are increasingly adopting body-worn camera programs that citizens hope hold the promise of accountability and transparency of police actions, but that trend is colliding with another citizen movement that puts a high value on privacy.

Police departments from Bakersfield, Calif., to Scranton, Pa., and beyond are piloting and deploying body-worn cameras (BWC) in increasing numbers, a movement happening just as privacy issues gain greater attention across the nation.

While many hold out hope that BWCs will bring greater accountability and transparency of police actions, the technology also has the potential to cut into citizens’ privacy.

“Our hope is the increase in privacy laws will impact the adoption rate of body cameras, or at least create a higher standard of privacy policies when [police departments] adopt it or deploy it in their communities,” Sakira Cook, senior counsel of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, told Government Technology.

The privacy issues that have surfaced range from protesters’ images captured on BWCs for later identification by law enforcement agencies to victims of crime, such as in rape cases or domestic violence disputes, recorded in vulnerable states, say civil rights groups. 

In a 2017 scorecard report from the Leadership Conference and Upturn, 67 of 75 law enforcement agencies had a personal privacy policy in place. But only 18 of the agencies had privacy policies that the two organizations deemed acceptable, meaning they specifically protected categories of vulnerable individuals, such as sex crime victims, from undergoing a recorded interaction without their expressed consent. 

Meanwhile, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 34 states and the District of Columbia have created body camera laws to address relations between police and communities.

Walking the Line Between Privacy and Accountability

“Privacy concerns generally do not seem to be slowing down the adoption of BWC technology,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum. 

Rick Myers, executive director of the Major Cities Chiefs Association, agreed. He said while there is no national registry of which law enforcement agencies are using BWCs, most states are noticing significant increases in agencies that use them. 

“Nowhere that I’ve seen does anyone have a reasonable expectation of privacy when speaking to a uniformed police officer,” Myers said. “What an officer sees with their eyes and hears with their ears is not ‘private,’ nor is what their body cams pick up. Despite this assertion, most agencies will have policies outlining when it is appropriate or not to be recording, to be sensitive to privacy concerns.”

Privacy Backlash

Local governments from Portland, Ore., to Kodiak, Alaska, have heard citizen complaints regarding concerns about privacy, representatives from those municipalities say.

When a draft policy governing BWC use was introduced to Portland’s city council in 2016 as the municipality considered its use, citizens voiced a number of concerns, including privacy implications, according to Constantin Severe, director of Portland’s Independent Police Review.

Portland police remain in the early stages of making a decision on BWCs and their related policies, said Sgt. Chris Burley, a public information officer with the Portland Police Bureau.

In Kodiak, Alaska, the city’s police department went as far as temporarily discontinuing the use of BWCs in 2016, in part due to privacy concerns. 

“This was one of the many issues surrounding the reasons why we discontinued the BWC program,” said Kodiak Police Chief Tim Putney. “Specifically, we didn’t have a method to redact footage pursuant to public records requests if deemed necessary by city ordinance or state law.”

After switching vendors and buying what it considers to be better body cameras — as well as the software accompanying them — the department has reinstated the program. The department wanted to bring them back to have a tool to defend officers against false claims, Putney said.

Double-Edged Sword Getting a Dull Edge?

“The public’s goals of transparency and accountability (with BWCs) is not bearing fruit,” said Harlan Yu, Upturn's executive director. “In California, the LAPD [Los Angeles Police Department], the second biggest police department, would not make its video footage public until it passed a new rule in March. Where is the transparency and accountability in that?”

He added that there is very little evidence that BWCs have brought the benefits that many had hoped for accountability and transparency and that, instead, BWCs are largely aids to serve the interests of police departments and not citizens. 

And as departments start looking to integrate facial recognition with their BWC programs, based on interest from law enforcement agencies and the companies that develop the technology, Yu said it poses a great threat to everyone’s privacy.

Bringing Privacy Into BWC Policies

In 2014, the Police Executive Research forum offered more than half a dozen recommendations to agencies using BWCs. Among some of the recommended protocols:

  • Officers should be required to inform subjects when they are being recorded, unless doing so would be unsafe, impractical or impossible. 
  • Officers should be required to obtain consent prior to recording interviews with crime victims, regardless of whether consent is required under state law.
  • Officers should have the discretion to keep their cameras turned off during conversations with a crime witness and members of the community who wish to discuss or report neighborhood crime activity.
“Any adoption of these (BWC) tools must be done in an open forum with community input,” Cook advised. “The adoption of the tools should improve accountability, transparency and policing. If you don’t have a policy that is focused on these goals and objectives, you will get something other than that.”