Tag: Body Cameras

In Seeking Good Body Camera Policy, Look to Lawmakers, Not Ethics Boards

When it comes to increasing police accountability and transparency it’s policy, not technology, that does the heavy lifting. Police body cameras, tools that are overwhelmingly popular among the public, are sometimes cited as a valuable resource for addressing police misconduct and secrecy. They can be, but only if the right policies are in place. Absent policies that balance privacy interests with the need to increase police accountability, body cameras are surveillance tools. The risk of body camera surveillance is especially pronounced at a time when a major body camera manufacturer is doing more work on artificial intelligence, a development that may result in the widespread use of police body cameras with real-time facial recognition capability.

Axon, the company that makes one of the most popular police body cameras, released a Law Enforcement Technology Report last year. That report outlined some of the technology that’s on the horizon: “Soon, you’ll be able to tell almost immediately if someone has an outstanding warrant against them, thanks to facial recognition technology.”

According to reporting by The Wall Street Journal, the merger of body camera and facial recognition technology is months rather than years away.

I’ve written on this blog before about why body cameras with facial recognition capability are a threat to civil liberties. I’m hardly alone in highlighting this threat. Axon’s leadership is clearly aware of the concerns raised by civil libertarians and has convened an AI Ethics Board. Yet it seems as if this board will have little if any impact on Axon’s development of technology that poses a significant risk to civil liberties.

An “Ethics Board” sounds like the kind of body a company that builds surveillance equipment and weapons should have. However, Axon’s AI Ethics Board lacks any kind of authority to ensure that the company’s products aren’t used unethically.

Yesterday, a coalition of civil rights groups wrote a letter to the Axon AI Ethics Board outlining their well-founded concerns. The letter calls for board members to assert themselves and oppose real-time facial recognition on body cameras, consult with community members with direct experience with the criminal justice system, limit sales to law enforcement agencies with appropriate body camera policies, and ensure that they have an oversight remit that covers all of Axon’s digital products.

Members of the AI Ethics Board, which includes eight volunteer civil liberties, AI, and criminal justice experts, do not currently have the authority to veto Axon products. A functional ethics board should be free to halt products or at the very least publish reviews of all Axon devices.

If Axon’s ethics board guaranteed that only departments with policies that increase accountability and transparency while also protecting civil liberties could buy Axon products the company would sell fewer body cameras. Dozens of America’s largest and most prominent police departments fail to implement praiseworthy body camera policies. For example, an Upturn examination of 75 police department body camera policies found that the Baltimore Police Department is the only department with strict limits on body camera footage being analyzed with facial recognition software, and that not a single department requires officers to write a report before reviewing body camera footage related to any incident. Giving the AI Ethics Board the power to dramatically affect sales is one of the reasons that Axon is unlikely to adhere to the recommendations in the recent coalition letter.

In all likelihood, Axon will continue to sell products that can, if governed by poor policies, erode civil liberties. Although Axon is signaling that it’s concerned about the ethical implications of its products, it doesn’t look as if its ethics board will prevent the proliferation of body cameras that will become known as tools of surveillance, not police accountability. In order for body cameras to achieve their potential as tools that improve policing it’s policymakers rather than private companies who will have to implement necessary changes.

Body Cameras Worth Deploying Despite Limited Impact

A study that examined the effects body worn cameras (BWCs) have on police officers in Washington, D.C. has been making the rounds recently. The study’s findings have reinvigorated discussions about BWCs, not least because of its counterintuitive finding that BWCs did not have a statistically significant effect on officers’ use of force or civilian complaints against the police. This finding is worth considering, but the study shouldn’t deter local officials from mandating police BWCs. Even if they don’t change police officers’ behavior, BWCs can, with the right policies in place, provide a much-needed increase in police accountability and transparency.

During the study, officers with the Metropolitan Police Department of the District of Columbia were randomly assigned BWCs. Researchers with The Lab @DC, a study team in the D.C. mayor’s office, and Yale University examined use of force incidents and complaints against police officers.

The study did not seek to measure the impact of BWCs’ other benefits such as accountability, transparency, and protection for officers, but rather narrowly measured their impact. In addition to examining how often police officers use force and are the subject of complaints, researchers also studied police discretion and the judicial outcomes related to police charges.

You might expect that officers improved their behavior when they were wearing BWCs. After all, if you know that you’re being filmed you have plenty of incentives to be on your best behavior, whether you’re an officer or a resident. And yet, the recent D.C. body camera study showed that BWCs had no statistically significant effect on officers’ behavior.

This may strike many as odd. But we shouldn’t forget the limitations that restrict researchers looking into the effects of BWCs. Researchers cannot, for instance, insist that when an officer wearing a BWC calls for backup that only officers also wearing BWCs respond. In a situation where two officers are interacting with a resident and only one of the officers is wearing a BWC there is a good chance that the BWC will influence the behavior of the officer not wearing the BWC.

One Police Video, Many Interpretations

Members of the public should be able to access the body camera footage related to Tuesday’s police-involved shooting that left Keith Scott dead and prompted violent protests in Charlotte, North Carolina. But we shouldn’t be under any illusion that everyone who watches the footage will arrive at the same opinion about the police officer’s behavior. Two people can watch the same video and come to different moral conclusions. A study on video footage that proved instrumental in a Supreme Court case helps illustrate this fact.

In Scott v. Harris (2007) the Supreme Court considered whether a police officer (Scott) had violated the Fourth Amendment when he deliberately ran Harris’ car off the road during a high-speed chase, which resulted in Harris being left a quadriplegic. An 8-1 majority found that, “a police officer’s attempt to terminate a dangerous high-speed car chase that threatens the lives of innocent bystanders does not violate the Fourth Amendment, even when it places the fleeing motorist at risk of serious injury or death.”

Body Camera Scorecard Reveals Nationwide Failure to Promote Transparency and Accountability

An updated body camera scorecard highlights a disturbing state of affairs in body camera policy that lawmakers should strongly resist. A majority of the body camera policies examined by Upturn and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights received the lowest possible score when it came to officer review of footage and citizens alleging misconduct having access to footage, meaning that the departments were either silent on the issues or have policies in place that are contrary to the civil rights principles outlined in the scorecard. Such policies do not promote transparency and accountability and serve as a reminder that body cameras can only play a valuable role in criminal justice reform if they’re governed by the right policies.

Upturn and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights looked at the body camera policies in fifty departments, including all departments in major cities that have either outfitted their officers with body cameras or will do so in the near future. Other departments that were scored include departments that received at least $500,000 in body camera grants from the Department of Justice as well as Baton Rouge Police Department and the Ferguson Police Department.

Each department was given one of four possible scores in eight categories (personal privacy, officer review, biometric use, footage retention, etc.). Departments were either awarded a red ex, a yellow circle, or a green check, depending on how consistent their body camera policy is with the civil rights principles outlined in the scorecard, with a red ex indicating inconsistency or silence and a green check indicating consistency. A fourth score, the “?”, was awarded to policies that were not publicly available.

Below are the scoring criteria for officer review and footage access for citizens filing complaints:

 

 

 

Forty of the fifty departments received the lowest possible score for “Officer Review,” and not one received a green check.

When it comes to access to footage the scores are marginally better, with four departments being awarded green checks. However, thirty-nine of departments in the “Footage Access” category received the lowest score.

Thirty-five (70%) of the departments received the lowest possible score for both officer review and access to footage. Among these departments are some of the America’s largest, including the Los Angeles Police Department, the New York Police Department, the Houston Police Department, and the Philadelphia Police Department.

Regrettably, the federal government has sent body camera funds to departments with the lowest-scoring officer review and footage access policies. Eleven of the thirty-five departments that received a red ex for officer review and footage access were awarded at least $500,000 in body camera grants by the Department of Justice.

Body cameras can only be tools for increased transparency and accountability in law enforcement with the right policies in place. Unfortunately, Upturn and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights’ scorecard reveals not only that many departments have poor accountability and transparency policies but also that the Department of Justice does not review these policies as disqualifying when it comes to body camera grants. 

 

Harsh Consequences Required for Officers Who Fail to Activate Body Cameras

Last Thursday, a Chicago police officer shot unarmed 18-year-old Paul O’Neal in the back, killing him. O’Neal reportedly crashed a stolen car into a police vehicle during a chase and then fled on foot. Two officers then fired at O’Neal. This is the kind of incident where body camera footage would be very helpful to investigators. The officer who shot O’Neal was outfitted with a body camera. Unfortunately, the camera wasn’t on during the shooting, raising difficult questions about the rules governing non-compliance with body camera policy. While there is undoubtedly a learning curve associated with body cameras officers who fail to have them on during use-of-force incidents should face harsh consequences.

Body camera footage of O’Neal’s shooting would make the legality of the killing easier to determine. The Supreme Court ruled in Tennessee v. Garner (1985) that a police officer cannot use lethal force on a fleeing suspect unless “the officer has probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or others.” The Chicago Police Department’s own use-of-force guidelines allow officers to use a range of tools (pepper spray, canines, Tasers) to deal with unarmed fleeing suspects under some circumstances, but the firearm is not one of them.

O’Neal’s shooting would be legal if the officer who shot him had probable cause to believe that he posed a threat of death or serious injury to members of the public or police officers. Given the information available, perhaps most significantly the fact that O’Neal was unarmed, it looks likely that O’Neal’s died as a result of unjustified use of lethal force.

So far, the Chicago Police Department has stripped three officers involved in the chase and shooting of police powers, with Superintendent Eddie Johnson saying that the officers violated department policy. O’Neal’s mother has filed a federal civil rights lawsuit, alleging that her son was killed “without legal justification.”