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Civil Rights Groups: Police Are Making Little Progress on Improving Body Cam Policies

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights partnered with Upturn to release an updated scorecard that evaluates the civil rights safeguards of police body-worn camera programs in 75 U.S. cities.

Most police departments across the United States have taken few new steps to ensure the footage they collect from body cameras will further transparency and accountability, according to a new study by civil rights groups.

On Nov. 14, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights partnered with Upturn to release a third annual review of body-worn camera policies at 75 police departments across the country. The report evaluated departments across eight criteria and found that they have budged little when it comes to ensuring that the footage collected will not contribute toward more expansive surveillance of communities or offer “a false narrative” of events captured by the video.

“Many people had hopes that these cameras would improve transparency and accountability, and foster a greater public trust in local law enforcement,” Vanita Gupta, president and chief executive officer of the Leadership Conference, told reporters during a press conference. “But the promise of these cameras is not guaranteed … there’s a real risk that these new devices can become instruments of injustice.”

The number of departments reviewed in the report has increased each year it's been released, rising from 25 in 2015 to 51 in 2016 and now 75.

“Overall, there’s very little change from last year, at all,” said Sakira Cook, senior counsel for the Leadership Conference. "Roughly half of the police departments evaluated — 26 — did not have any score changes compared to last year, according to the study. Eighteen departments, or 35 percent, made minor policy improvements."

In fact, seven departments made their body cam policies worse compared to those the year before, said Cook.

The Baltimore Police Department, however, improved across four of the eight indicators. In 2016 the U.S. Justice Department issued a scathing report on the state of the department, finding a pattern of civil rights violations.

One area where police departments should pay special attention, the report authors said, is not allowing officers to review body cam footage prior to filing their own reports.

“By allowing officers to review footage as they write their initial incident report, it makes it easier for them to act for the camera and create multiple leaps about what truly happened,” said Harlan Yu, executive director of Upturn, a nonprofit technology and social justice reasearch firm based in Washington, D.C., citing the findings in The Illusion of Accuracy: How Body-Worn Camera Footage Can Distort Evidence, also released Tuesday.

Too often, said Yu, body-worn cameras have become “tools to service the interests of the police, rather than tools for police accountability.”

Fifty of 75 departments reviewed allow for unrestricted review of the footage. No department has yet to adopt a “clean reporting” policy, where officers can't look at footage before filing reports, for all incidents. It would be best for officers to file reports first, then write a supplemental report after viewing the footage if needed, Yu said.

Several police departments did not immediately return requests seeking comment on the report's findings and recommendations.

Police departments should also be wary of pairing face-recognition technology to the body camera footage, which could lead to an improper surveillance mechanism, said Cook.

“We are concerned that if this technology becomes a multipurpose surveillance tool, it will intensify these already stark disparities in how different communities are policed,” she said. “And the promise of body-worn cameras to increase transparency and accountability will fail.”

It will likely be up to police departments and state lawmakers to ensure that body cameras are used to further openness and transparency between the police and the communities they serve.

“Ultimately, we must recognize that these body-worn cameras, in and of themselves, are not a panacea,” Gupta said. “These cameras are just a tool, not a substitute for broader reform needed to address police misconduct, build trust between police and communities of color and ultimately fix our broken justice system.”

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.