Watching the Watchman

Updated: September 30, 2015, at 3:17 p.m.

The people demanded it, the police officers’ union supported it, and the city council would fund it. Yet curiously, Washington, D.C.’s proposal to put body cameras on its police force threatened to grind to a halt in May. Of the $5.1 million requested to purchase body cameras, the D.C. Council approved only $1.9 million. This massive funding shortfall was in part due to a public outcry over the Metropolitan Police Department’s (MPDC) plan to exempt body camera footage from the Freedom of Information Act, which would deny public access to the videos except at the discretion of police administrators.

Citizens and local government officials alike argue that leaving police as the sole arbiter of who gets to view the videos defeats the entire purpose of the body cameras—namely, to increase police accountability and transparency. The MPDC argues that because it would need to anonymize any and all videos released, usually by blurring faces and masking voices, the cost of the project would quickly spiral into infeasibility. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s office has developed a new proposal that would dramatically increase access to body camera footage in public places; however, the shift only occurred after a months-long standstill, and the issue remains unresolved in Washington and countless other American cities.

This type of conflict heralds the latest roadblock in the race to implement police body cameras that has swept the nation in the past year. As Luke Lappala, a spokesperson for Vievu, a major body camera manufacturer, explained in an interview with the HPR, the path to deploying the technology involves a series of hurdles. The initial hurdle was public sentiment, overcome in the wake of events such as those in Ferguson and Staten Island that brought body cameras into the public eye and turned public opinion overwhelmingly in their favor.

Shortly after came the hurdle of funding, a problem that still prevents many police departments from launching body camera programs. However, money is becoming more available: President Obama intends to dedicate $75 million over the next three years to deploy body cameras across the country, and experts view body cameras as inevitable. In an interview with the HPR, Harvard Law School professor Ron Sullivan, a specialist in criminal justice, said he believes that body cameras “in the next ten years will be routine”. Seattle Police Department chief operating officer Mike Wagers is even more optimistic, claiming to the HPR that “in two years, [body cameras] will be a part of every officer’s uniform.”

Now, with debates similar to those in D.C. taking place from coast to coast, the hurdle on the horizon is one of policy: writing laws that will govern cameras and the footage they capture. The gravity of the situation is evident. At their best, body cameras can act as a powerful force for justice, not only by providing irrefutable evidence when police officers abuse their power, but also by laying a foundation upon which to repair citizens’ trust in law enforcement and government. At worst, as Chad Marlow, author of the ACLU’s model legislation on body cameras, said in an interview with HPR, body cameras could produce not only a squandered opportunity to reduce police brutality, but also a further erosion of police accountability—especially if officers learned what the videos “failed to capture” and started to “play fast and loose with the facts” or even tamper with the videos. Thus, Seattle P.D.’s Wagers stated, “No technology should be developed without [the] proper policy in place—and proper training.”

Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action

Early body camera adopters have implemented many policies that even the harshest critics support. For example, an early concern was that having cameras constantly on, even in personal moments such as trips to the bathroom, would compromise police officers’ privacy. In response, the San Diego Police Department requires officers to turn on the camera only before an “enforcement or likely enforcement contact,” explained San Diego Media Relations Officer Mark Herring in an interview with HPR. He added that aside from some “growing pains,” such as veteran officers forgetting to turn on the cameras, officers have largely been compliant with such policies. Furthermore, recorded footage cannot be edited or deleted, and all access is logged and audited on a regular basis, quieting the common complaint that police could tamper with footage. Finally, though the specifics vary by departments that have adopted the policy, most footage is kept for around six months unless it involves a use of police force, in which case it is maintained for a longer period. This helps to address concerns that embarrassing or compromising footage could be floating around indefinitely.

Even more encouraging, noted Herring, San Diego police have assisted “10 other [police] departments both in-state and out of state” in developing their body camera policies, giving reason to believe that these best practices, largely developed internally by police administrations in San Diego and other major cities, will diffuse and become a standard as other towns and cities initiate their own body camera programs.

Still, the policies in place are not perfect, as the situation in D.C. suggests, and the most contentious consideration is video access. On the one hand, police forces across the nation are seeking to block public access to all footage recorded by body cameras, except under particular circumstances, such as when the footage is relevant to a court case or when the police themselves decide to release footage. From the perspective of law enforcement, there is good reason to do so.

First, according to Herring, body camera video is viewed as evidence, on par with a bloody knife found on a crime scene. California law does not allow public access to evidence except with the consent of the chief of police; thus, much as the public would not have access to a murder weapon, it would also not have access to body camera video. Releasing evidence to the broad public before court proceedings, Herring continued, could “blow the integrity of an investigation” and “taint the jury pool” by biasing the judge and jurors. Furthermore, because a camera “only catches what’s in view,” the footage may not be a complete representation of the circumstances at the time of the recording.

Second, unfettered public access to body camera video could violate the privacy of the videos’ subjects. In the most extreme case, this could enable an expansion of the mug shot publishing industry, wherein a malicious website posts incriminating videos or photos of an individual online and the victim must pay a fee to remove them. Furthermore, special considerations need to be given to those injured on camera (for medical privacy reasons) and minors.

An obvious solution to these challenges would be to anonymize videos so that subjects’ identities are not compromised. However, this is often impractical: handling a large volume of requests often requires hours of manual, frame-by-frame editing, drastically driving up the cost of such programs. In one extreme case, a single individual requested that Seattle police release thousands of hours of anonymized body camera footage, which was so infeasible due to manpower and budget constraints that officers had to sit down with the individual and develop a better solution.

I’ll Be Watching You

Transparency activists argue that not allowing the public to view footage defeats the purpose of the videos. Without citizens’ ability to review the videos and hold officers accountable for their actions, transparency and accountability will not improve. As Seattle P.D.’s Wagers told the HPR, if police are given the choice of “what to put online, of course [they are] going to only put the good stuff out there.” The ACLU’s Marlow agreed, warning that giving police unilateral control over access to these videos allows them not only to conceal video evidence of police misconduct, but also to whitewash their image.

Inklings of this practice are surfacing already even near San Diego, where body cameras have been in place since 2014. Nearby towns, such as Escondido, CA, have released numerous videos displaying acts of police heroism, but body cameras failed to capture a recent fatal police shooting. While San Diego has seen as much as a 40 percent reduction in complaints against police and nearly 50 percent reduction in use of force, Marlow said that body cameras threaten to become a “propaganda tool if police are left as arbiters.

Marlow and others have proposed and implemented solutions to the concerns raised by police in regards to releasing body camera footage to the public. Wagers explained that Seattle addressed the issue by creating software to automatically anonymize body camera footage—cutting hundreds of hours of labor—and by releasing “the good, the bad, and the ugly out there” on YouTube. Another solution supported by Marlow would be to open video access to the subjects of a particular video and their families. This straightforward policy change would allow individuals to hold the police accountable for their actions without compromising their own privacy or any potential court cases that may arise. These solutions, though still in their early stages, could meet the demands of both citizens and police.

When asked about the possibility of implementing some of these solutions, San Diego P.D.’s Mark Herring declined to comment, but he noted that San Diego and most other recent adopters in the United States have only utilized body cameras for less than a year, and their policies are still liable to change.

Wagers attributed the success of the Seattle Police Department’s program to the entire department’s commitment to “be as transparent as possible” and “rebuild public trust.” Though he also declined to comment about other departments’ policies, his view is that within the next three years, public pressure will push the “video access problem [to be] solved”—and that, even in cities that have not yet embraced body cameras, future officers will look back and view these policy solutions as a “no-brainer.”

Image source: Flickr / 888bailbond

Correction: September 30, 2015

An earlier version of this article suggested that the San Diego Police Department had released numerous videos displaying acts of police heroism. However, this department does not release footage from body worn cameras, and the footage in question comes from towns near San Diego.

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