As the movement against police brutality in the United States continues to gain momentum and push for greater accountability, an increasing number of police departments have adopted the use of police body worn cameras (BWCs) in an effort to repair community-police relations. There has generally been widespread acceptance of the use of body cameras amongst activists, legal experts, and law enforcement agencies alike. The common perception is that the presence of cameras will deter police misconduct and force departments to be more transparent. Unfortunately, while police BWCs may have their uses, they are also tools that expand the reach of the surveillance state. This problem is especially acute in already vulnerable, over-policed communities of color, who will bear the brunt of this increased surveillance.
The Bill of Rights Defense Committee and Defending Dissent Foundation (BORDC/DDF), along with other similarly concerned activist groups, have cautioned against the hasty implementation of police BWCs from the time they were first proposed. BORDC/DDF understands that body cameras are not in and of themselves enough to improve police accountability—there must be clear, enforceable guidelines regulating how and when the cameras are used. Without such rules, these cameras will only become another weapon law enforcement agencies can use to their advantage.
The current state of body camera regulations seems to validate our concerns. After several incidents in which body cameras failed to capture footage of fatal police encounters with civilians, a coalition of nearly three dozen civil rights groups released an outline of optimal guidelines police departments should implement to oversee the use of body cameras. These guidelines covered issues such as the storing and use of footage from body cameras, facial recognition and other biometric technologies, limiting the ability of officers to review their own footage, and several others.
Earlier this month, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights released a policy scorecard evaluating the body camera policies of 25 police departments across the nation, including the 15 largest city forces that are current using police BWCs, to see how they matched up against the guidelines put out by civil rights groups. The results were disappointing, though perhaps unsurprising: not a single police department had a perfect record, and two of them—Atlanta and Ferguson, Missouri—had no policies in place whatsoever for all the areas researchers examined. Some of the discoveries were quite alarming, such as the fact that other than Baltimore, no police department has a policy banning the use of facial recognition or other biometric technologies in conjunction with police BWCs.
BORDC/DDF has been doing its part to prevent or limit the adoption of police BWCs before comprehensive guidelines are put in place to protect people’s civil liberties. This past September BORDC/DDF submitted testimony to the San Francisco Police Commission urging the city to adopt certain regulations concerning the use of BWCs instead of implementing the inadequate policy SFPD was considering. These regulations included strictly limiting the use of footage to police accountability purposes, banning all facial recognition technology, requiring officers to inform individuals that they are being filmed, making unedited tapes immediately available to people filing complaints of police misconduct, and forbidding police from reviewing footage before filing reports. These kinds of policies ought to be present in every police department that opts to use BWCs in order to protect the privacy of those law enforcement is meant to serve.