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What Body Cams Do: Policy, Discretion and Deeper Problems

In our series examining the impacts of body cameras, we conclude by looking at how different policies can influence outcomes, and why some problems are just too deep to be solved by technology alone.

Editor's note: This is the fifth part in a series about body cameras in the U.S. To follow along with the series, click here.


Body cameras are a powerful tool. They create an account of events that lets a person — be they a community member, a politician or a person charged with holding the police accountable — see what happened for themselves, rather than relying on the honesty and memory of somebody who was there.

But their power can be used in ways that don’t necessarily do any good for the public.

“In practice, whether body cameras are a good tool for promoting transparency and accountability or whether they’re largely a tool for mass surveillance really comes down to the policies,” said Chad Marlow, counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union.

In 2015, the ACLU, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and more than 30 other groups put out guides for what some of those policies should be. But even outside those groups, experts tend to talk about the same questions surrounding body camera policy.

One big question is when the body cameras turn on. There are basically three approaches: Turn them on for the officer’s entire shift, turn them on under given circumstances or let the officer decide when to turn them on.

The discretionary approach doesn’t appear to have much support from anybody; it doesn’t exactly help the police establish legitimacy or transparency. The Police Executive Research Forum found in a 2015 survey that 10 percent of agencies left recording up to the officers.

“Body cameras are only useful if they’re capturing the right footage, and I think it really is best if the police have as close to no discretion policies as possible,” said Marlow.

There’s evidence to suggest that body cameras remaining on for entire shifts might be more effective at reducing police use of force than conditional recording, but the PERF study found that only 1 percent of agencies had such a policy.

The most common approach is to record under certain conditions, like when an officer responds to a call or when they start interacting with a civilian. Attaching it to a simple, clearly defined event can help ensure that officers don’t forget, said Rick Myers, executive director of the Major Cities Chiefs Association. So does including body camera activation in standard officer training.

“It begins to build the muscle memory so it’s instinctive you turn the camera on,” Myers said. “But it’s not going to be 100 percent.”

That failure to reach 100 percent has had some real consequences. Recently in South Bend, Ind., an officer shot a motorcyclist to death. The officer was wearing the camera, but didn’t turn it on. Now, as the citizen’s family, the community and the police department grapple with what happened, they have no footage to validate what the officer says happened.

But perhaps the largest questions surrounding the technology come after a camera has recorded something: Who can see that video, and when?

The ACLU’s model legislation, for example, prohibits officers who are writing a report on an incident from viewing video of the incident before they turn in their initial report. That’s because so much hinges on an officer’s own mental process during an event: Did they perceive that a person was threatening them?

There’s also the question of when the public gets to see a video. In many cases, Marlow said, police departments have used public record exemption clauses to justify withholding video. But those statutes, he argues, were written to avoid tipping off suspects in ongoing cases.

“The problem is it makes no sense when applied to body camera footage,” he said. “Where it has filmed a police use of force, you know who the suspect is — it’s the officer who engaged in the use of force.”

In other cases, states have enacted laws exempting body camera footage from public record requests.

Giving police broad authority to decide which videos get released can be a problem for a few reasons, Marlow said. One is that it contradicts one of the main reasons for adopting the cameras in the first place: Transparency. Another is that it opens the door for the cameras to become a propaganda tool.

“They can present some significant threats to privacy, particularly if they transform into either a mass surveillance tool or a tool where there’s a propaganda-ish nature to it, meaning videos that paint the police in a positive light get released fairly quickly and easily and those that do not get withheld,” Marlow said.

Some police might fight the release of footage, but there are many who see rapid release of footage for events involving officer violence as being in the best interest of the department.

“(Agencies are) using it to mitigate riots and protests and that sort of thing in the community,” said David McNeil, chief of the Aberdeen, S.D., Police Department.

Sometimes, that could be a bad idea, cautions said Grant Fredericks, an expert witness in cases involving video evidence and owner of a testing lab for body cameras. Technical limitations to a video — like blurriness, frame rate and angle — can create confusion or misinterpretations of video. But guidance on how to interpret a video, or a nuanced understanding of the limitations of the video, won’t necessarily reach all the people who see a video.


If they were put in place to hold police accountable for bad behavior, then success has come infrequently.

If they were to promote transparency, they certainly do so under the right conditions.

If body cameras were meant to protect the police, they appear to be working.

But just like any other kind of technology, body cameras are secondary to human behavior. So behind all the questions about whether body cameras are doing what they were meant to, or what people were hoping they would do, or whether they’re worth it, there is a truth: A lack of video is not the reason police disproportionately shoot and kill African Americans.

There are other reasons. Marlow pointed to the questions courts are given to answer when an officer kills a civilian.

“The real issue in many cases is how permissive our laws are when it comes to police use of force,” he said.

That’s part of the problem, agrees Scot Esdaile, who sits on the NAACP's board of directors. But there is a much older issue underneath.

“I think it’s good for us to see the videos,” he said. “But I don’t think the cameras are going to solve the problem of racist police or the military-minded police that are carrying out this behavior in communities of color.”


Ben Miller is the associate editor of data and business for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes breaking news, business, community features and technical subjects. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, and lives in Sacramento, Calif.