Amidst increased public scrutiny of policing practices and rising concerns over police officer safety, a recent Cato/YouGov national survey finds fully 65% of Americans say there is a “war on police” in America today. Majorities across partisan groups share this view, although Republicans (81%) express greater concern than independents (62%) and Democrats (55%).
While Americans are concerned about police safety, this does not mean they wish to avoid reform. Instead, Americans overwhelming support (92%) requiring police officers wear body cameras that would record video of their interactions. Moreover fully 6 in 10 “strongly support” such a proposal. A paltry 8% oppose police wearing body cameras. Support extends across demographic and political groups. In an era of hyper-partisanship, police wearing body cameras achieves rare post-partisan consensus.
Jeremy Dear, an Albuquerque police officer, has been reinstated despite the fact that his body camera was not on when he shot and killed 19-year-old Mary Hawkes, a suspected car thief who allegedly pointed a gun at Dear during a foot chase in April last year. Dear’s reinstatement is a reminder that officers who do not have their body cameras on when they are supposed to should face harsh disciplinary consequences.
Today, Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Gil Kerlikowske announced that the agency would spend three additional months studying whether body-worn cameras (BWCs) are suitable for deployment by CBP. The agency has been studying BWC deployment since 2014, and the effort comes after years of intense pressure by non-governmental organizations over a pattern of lethal use-of-force incidents since 2010.
The draft feasibility report released by CBP appears to give federal employee unions virtual veto power over the deployment of the cameras, stating “Successful union negotiations are required prior to implementation.”
The report also makes clear that the cameras are being sold to CBP agents as a shield against public complaints, and less as an officer accountability tool:
Officers and agents must be willing to wear and operate their BWCs, without fear of reprisal. Officers and agents must have the confidence of knowing that the primary purpose of BWCs is to corroborate their sworn testimony, not create frivolous punishments. They also must be assured their privacy will be protected from unnecessary review and release.
In addition, the report outlines a number of factors that “may adversely affect CBP officers/agents, operations, and mission (sic).” However, upon closer examination many of these factors are easily addressed and need not impede the deployment of body cameras.
For instance, the working group writes:
The BWCs increase the cognitive load experienced by officer/agents, causing them to redirect their attention towards the operation of the camera versus allowing them to focus on the encounter. BWCs may also cause an officer/agent to second-guess a course of action.
Body cameras may take some getting used to, but the fact that some officers find operating the cameras difficult or distracting should not prevent the CBP from deploying body cameras. After all, dash cameras also presumably increased officers’ “cognitive load” and caused some officers to second-guess their actions. And yet, dash cameras as now considered perfectly normal law enforcement tools. During a press call on November 12, CBP officials conceded that it was a mistake on their part not to have conducted a dash camera review as part of the initial BWC evaluation process, an oversight that will allegedly be corrected during the upcoming follow on evaluation process.
Today South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley will sign S.47, a body camera bill. The bill requires state and local law enforcement agencies in South Carolina to use body cameras and to develop body camera policies and procedures. It also establishes a “Body-Worn Cameras Fund” and prohibits police body camera footage from being accessed via Freedom of Information (FOIA) requests.
Advocates of increased transparency in law enforcement are understandably keen to see more police officers wearing body cameras. Not only is there some evidence that police officers wearing body cameras contributes to a decline in police “use-of-force” incidents, footage from police cameras has provided useful evidence to those investigating allegations of police misconduct. Yet despite the benefits of police body cameras there are serious privacy concerns that must be considered and addressed as they become more common.
Perhaps the most obvious privacy concerns are those of the civilians filmed by police officers. If footage from police body cameras is considered public record then hours of footage of innocent people’s interactions with police officers is potentially available. It is not hard to imagine a situation in which police officers wearing body cameras enter someone’s home and leave without making an arrest. Footage of that encounter could reveal embarrassing or private information about the homeowner.
In November of last year it was reported that Washington police departments were reviewing their policies related to dash cameras and body cameras in the wake of an increase in requests for footage from the public via public record requests. As the ACLU has pointed out, Washington is one of the states where body camera footage is considered “susceptible to public release upon request.”
At the end of last month, members of the North Dakota House overwhelmingly passed a bill that would exempt police body camera footage of the inside of a private place from a public record request. North Dakota House member Kim Koppelman, who introduced the bill, said that the legislation would protect civilians in situations similar to the one I outlined above. Koppelman reportedly introduced the bill “at the request of West Fargo Police Chief Michael Reitan.” Koppelman and Reitan may be primarily concerned with the privacy of civilians, but a civilian could have a genuine interest in seeing the footage gathered by police officers in her home, especially if she believes that officers damaged property or behaved poorly.