You lookin’ at me? Body-worn cameras and privacy

They increase transparency but also the perception of Police As Big Brother. Life is so complicated!

Last month, the Richmond Police Department introduced its first-ever body-worn cameras, and we’ve been thinking about it ever since.

Over the past few years (decades?), accounts of officers shooting unarmed Black males have rocked the nation. After Ferguson, Missouri officer Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown in August 2014 and people in multiple cities rioted in frustration, the U.S. Department of Justice invested $20 million in body-worn camera partner programs with localities. The purpose of these cameras is to let us rely less on officer-said/witness-said accounts and give us some real, recorded facts.

Body-worn cameras can signal a pro-active approach, indicating that a police department has invested in accountability and transparency, which theoretically leads to enforcers behaving better.

On the law enforcement side, the benefits are obvious: People can see what really happened when you approach a person.

On the citizen’s side, the benefits are obvious, too: People can see what really happened when you’re approached by a police officer.

At first glance, it’s so good, right?

The unfortunate underside of transparency, as always, is a concern for citizen privacy. With access to potentially sensitive situations and question marks around stored footage, there’s a danger of contributing to the establishment of a surveillance state–or at least the perception of such.

The deployment of this technology without proper safeguards and the right policies in place can turn a tool meant to promote police accountability into a tool that expands the surveillance state. — Getting to Win-Win: Executive Summary, American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia

Courts haven’t given law enforcement agencies much to go on for this unprecedented technological leap into the weird private lives of humans (and they are weird), so the ACLU’s privacy considerations have been the guiding force.

Determined to “get to win-win,” the ACLU of Virginia put out this detailed report (PDF) and its lighter, simpler twin, the Executive Summary (PDF) recommendations for use of BWCs (body-worn cameras).

In the report, the ACLU of Virginia calls for localities in Virginia to adopt more stringent policies than the U.S. Department of Justice recommends (PDF). A tiny percentage of police departments in the commonwealth have already gone the extra mile (between 3%-12% for most of these individual recommendations), but the rest of them have yet to step up.

This includes Richmond! Here in Richmond Police Department’s FAQs on the subject (PDF), you can see that their policy matches USDJ regulations.

At the state level, HB998, which would require all localities to implement BWCs didn’t make it out of committee. HB1143 covered a whole lot of the ACLU’s requests and would have made them mandatory for localities, but that died in committee as well. Even the bi-partisan HB1327, which would require localities just to follow the USDJ’s recommendations, was halted before it even got to the a House vote.

With the state unable (or unwilling) to make some sweeping rules, the burden is on the localities to make their policies bulletproof, so to speak.

Here’s what the ACLU of Virginia would like the RPD (et al.) to do

Figure out consent stuff

Right now, the police officer has to inform the person that they’re being recorded IF they feel that it’s practical to do so. The ACLU would like to get rid of that “IF.” They’d also like to give citizens the right to say “Nope, I would not like to be recorded,” and have that request be honored.

Determine who has the authority and when they can use it

The ACLU feels that only any officer with arrest authority should be able to wear a camera–there’s no current policy that limits BWCs to arresting officers. Also, there’s no policy to prohibit recording during First Amendment-protected activities, at schools, and within people’s homes. The ACLU would like there to be policies for all of the above, clearly stated.

This is a double-sided coin (as most coins are? is that even an expression?)! The ACLU would also, if it were up to them, require officers to make sure they MUST be recording every individual, assuming that individual doesn’t fall under one of their other recommended privacy violations above. Phew. Complicated. This is to make sure that an officer can’t just turn off their BWC, shoot an unarmed person, and then be like, “Oh, it was just one of those situations where I didn’t have to have my BWC on.”

Establish and enforce consequences

None of these policies will be any good without real consequences for officers who do not follow them. As of now, there’s no policy in place for that.

And what about storage and access to all of these videos

The Richmond Police Department is keeping every video on After 90 days, videos get purged, with the exception of those that are deemed “evidentiary.” This means that anything that could be of use in a court case is kept. Under the the Virginia Freedom of Information Act, Virginia Code 2.2-3700, the public can have access to the information.

This is all well and good! But the ACLU would like more–how will the information be transferred from camera to computer? Will there be room for someone to be like “Oh, whoopsie, there goes the data!” or what?

— ∮∮∮ —

Moving right along

As officers become used to the technology, we should be able to see how this plays out. But until the U.S. Department of Justice makes official recommendations for closing the loopholes mentioned above–or until the General Assembly votes to do so–it’ll take the locality’s initiative.

One thing’s for sure: In the future, the cameras will all be a whole lot smaller and cooler looking. Somewhere, Q is in an underground lair, working on it.

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Susan Howson

Susan Howson is managing editor for this very website. She writes THE BEST bios.

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