Obama Police Task Force Report Includes Worrying Recommendation

Yesterday, President Obama met with the Task Force on 21st Century Policing, which on the same day released an interim report outlining dozens of recommendations related to how policing can be improved. The report was released the day after police in Los Angeles shot and killed a man during an altercation in which, according to the LAPD, he and officers “struggled over one of the officer’s handguns.”

What makes the shooting notable is that at least one of the officers involved in the shooting was wearing a body camera. According to LAPD commander Andrew Smith, the officers who were at the scene were assigned to the LAPD’s Central Division and Safer Cities Initiative, which is outfitting officers with body cameras as part of the LAPD’s body camera pilot program. Smith has said that footage from the body camera will be used in the investigation along with footage of the shooting captured by a member of the public. 

President Obama’s Task Force interim report directly addresses police body cameras without explicitly recommending that they be required. Among the recommendations in the report is that the Department of Justice (DOJ) “develop best practices that can be adopted by state legislative bodies to govern the acquisition, use, retention, and dissemination of auditory, visual, and biometric data by law enforcement.”

The report also makes a worrying recommendation; that the DOJ’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS Office) consider offering law enforcement agencies a financial incentive to adopt the national benchmarks and best practices they may propose. It is unclear that the COPS Office — the same office whose grants were sometimes used to fund the increased militarization of police — needs to take a lead in developing national benchmarks for police reform. As in most other policy areas, when it comes to police reform a decentralized approach is better than a centralized one.  

However, the report also says, “The implementation of appropriate technology by law enforcement agencies should be designed considering local needs and aligned with national standards.”

Of course, law enforcement agencies in the United States as well as the communities they serve are diverse in their needs. Some law enforcement agencies police predominantly urban areas, while others oversee more rural parts of the country. Police departments also range from the very large to the very small. According to data from 2008 cited in the interim report, roughly half of U.S. law enforcement agencies have fewer than 10 officers. Such a varied collection of police departments suggests that a localized, federalist approach should be adopted when considering police reform.    

The report goes on to say, “These model policies and practices should at minimum address technology usage and data and evidence acquisition and retention, as well as privacy issues, accountability and discipline.”

All of these issues need to be addressed in police body camera policies, and given the recommended consideration of financial incentives at the end of the report, it is especially important that the DOJ recommend prudent guidelines.

The last recommendation of the report outlines actions that the COPS Office should consider. Among these is the establishment of national benchmarks and best practices discussed above and prioritizing grants to “departments meeting benchmarks.” The DOJ does not have the authority to demand that non-federal law enforcement agencies comply with the recommendations in the interim report, but it can provide incentives.

The financial incentive will undoubtedly be attractive to some law enforcement agencies. If the benchmarks released by the COPS Office do not adequately address the issues mentioned above, then there is a risk of poorly considered policies not being contained to one agency. A better approach would be for the COPS Office to provide national benchmarks without a financial incentive attached to their adoption.

The recent LAPD shooting could lead to a high profile investigation into potential police misconduct aided by body camera footage. In the coming years it shouldn’t be surprising if more incidents of police officers using deadly force are caught on body cameras.

Once incidents like Sunday’s are caught on video, there needs to be policies in place detailing if and when the footage will be available to the public and what information will be redacted once that footage is released. In addition, there needs to be policies in place outlining when an officer’s body camera should be on and the disciplinary repercussions for failing to turn a body camera on at an appropriate time. Any policy tackling these issues and others related to police body cameras will be constrained by fiscal as well as legislative realities such as local budgets and state public record laws.

The COPS Office may do as the interim report recommends and consider establishing national benchmarks and practices for police departments. Yet the diversity of law enforcement regulations and legislation makes the incentives attached to the implementation of any possible benchmarks and practices unsuitable. Rather than offering to prioritize grant funds for departments that meet potential COPS Office national benchmarks, the DOJ ought to publish the benchmarks without financial incentives. This will allow local law enforcement officials and state legislators to examine police body camera policies without the possibility of some funding being attached to one of the proposals.