Why Are DC Police Keeping Their Body Cameras Off During Inauguration and the Women’s March?

A lot of social media activity has come to our attention questioning why the DC police have been instructed NOT to turn their body cameras on during the president’s inauguration and the following day’s “Million Women March.” Many people seem puzzled by this.

“ACLU Demands That Body Cams Are Turned Off During Inauguration While They Intend To Record Police” proclaims the headline of one widely circulated post, on a site called “Law Officer” (and seemingly based upon this local story by the NBC DC affiliate).

It’s not an ACLU “demand,” it’s actually DC law. True, the ACLU of DC supported and encouraged adoption of that law, but the wider District of Columbia community as represented by its city council agreed with us. And that law is not absolute; in its full form it says that:

MPD officers may record First Amendment assemblies for the purpose of documenting violations of law and police actions, as an aid to future coordination and deployment of law enforcement units, and for training purposes; provided, that recording First Amendment assemblies shall not be conducted for the purpose of identifying and recording the presence of individual participants who are not engaged in unlawful conduct.

We supported that law for very good reasons. There is a long history of law enforcement compiling dossiers on peaceful activists exercising their First Amendment rights in public marches and protests, and using cameras to send an intimidating message to such protesters: “we are WATCHING YOU and will REMEMBER your presence at this event.” For a vivid picture of how photography can create chilling effects, recall the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery Alabama in 1965, when Alabama state troopers viciously attacked and beat peaceful protesters. Then take a look at this ominous photograph, which was taken after thousands of federal troops were finally sent to protect the marchers:

Trooper filming 1965 Selma march
Trooper filming Selma march, 1965. Photo by Alfred M. Loeb; used by permission. 

There’s also a long history of such information being used in abusive ways against Americans peacefully agitating for a better society.

The purpose of body cameras is to serve as a check and balance on the enormous power that society confers on police officers, including the power to use brutal or even deadly force in some circumstances—a power that we all now know has unfortunately been abused all too often. The purpose of body cameras is NOT to serve as an intelligence gathering tool helping police collect information on people exercising their rights. Even if intel gathering were not the intent at the time that video was collected, there would remain the possibility that police at some later date would be tempted to run face recognition on that footage, or use it for other, nebulous “intelligence” purposes (a word that in the police context is directly connected to a long history of surveillance and other abuses). There are serious concerns in many communities that, instead of being a tool for much-needed oversight over police officers, body cameras will become just another surveillance device.

Such concerns are why the ACLU recommends (including in our model legislation) that police department adopt a policy against the taking of video of people who are merely exercising their First Amendment rights.

Of course, none of this means that the police cannot turn on their cameras during the inauguration or march if something goes down. The policy of the DC police, like most, stipulates that officers are to turn their cameras when engaged in “police actions” such as calls for service, pursuits, searches, stops, etc. Thus, if a fight breaks out, or some larger disturbance, the cameras would go on.

Many of the articles and posts covering this issue point out that the ACLU also supports and encourages the filming of police by citizens through our Mobile Justice app, including the DC version thereof—and suggest this is a contradiction. A typical post, for example, says, “This one seems a bit hypocritical to us. The ACLU... are pushing a mobile app encouraging people to record the police... while not wanting to be recorded themselves.”

But this isn’t hypocritical at all. As we’ve said many times, there is no reason for the government to be filming or otherwise monitoring its citizens absent suspicion of wrongdoing—but it absolutely is the people’s right to monitor their government, including police officers, and how they are doing their jobs. Citizens should be watching their government—but not vice-versa.

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Jack

The last paragraph is hypocritical. You are asking police to only be able to film the situation in a reactionary manner. If something happens they will be turning the cameras on after the fact, thus losing evidence and losing the value of the body cameras. If you are in public you don't have the expectation of privacy. Plus, the event is so big that there will be media cameras everywhere, you really think that shady government officials are not smart enough to go to social media/TV to find the faces of these protesters to put on their supposed watch lists?

Scott

You think "the value" of the body cameras is in collecting evidence of civilians' behavior? The whole point of the cams is to monitor police interactions with those they police, not to conduct surveillance of the policed.

What gets published on TV typically will be a small fraction of what's filmed. Police wouldn't get to see
the rest without a court order.

Montrose Halsted

These cameras can help uncover the truth about violent police-civilian encounters and even deter violent encounters from happening in the first place — but only when they are consistently worn and activated.

MichaelNolan

Body cams are designed to prevent police abuse--not to intimidate civilians or to spy on them. The cameras are not designed to be used against demonstrators.

Anonymous

Make up your mind, do you want the cops to have control over their body cams or not. In one statement you say they should not have control when they are on then in this you want them off except when taking action. WTH ACLU, I agree that all cops should have body cams , but you need to make up your mind which is more important, accountability or stopping big brother because like it or not you will have to chose here. I think in this case greater accountability trumps stopping big brother.

MxDoe

Well, there could hardly be LESS accountability than we're seeing in cities with systemic and long-standing issues with lack of accountability in policing. If cameras alone could solve police accountability then Rodney King would have a Nobel Peace prize and none of us would know the names of Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Walter Scott, or Laquan McDonald.

Did you have a more in-depth explanation than "I think"? (This sounds sarcastic, but I'm not sure how else to ask it.]

Given the incoming administration, I would expect 'Big Brother' to get a bit bigger and nastier. Many people joining this march will be taking to the streets for the first time in their lives. That will make them vulnerable to police intimidation. (The same goes for extra-judicial intimidation.] Covering your face isn't just about the cold, I would encourage people who have little experience in the streets to mask up.
***
Oh and wear sunscreen, NEVER contacts, and remember to respect your body and personal limits. Be prepared for an arrest even if you don't want one to happen. Even if pot is decriminalized / "legal"? Don't bring it. Don't bring booze. Do bring three days of any other prescribed medications in original containers with full instructions. I've needed any of these precautions at a protest.

Standard Disclaimer: None of the above is written by a lawyer, and frankly if you get legal advice from strangers in forums... I would suggest - in the politest terms possible of course - that any errors or details omitted in my explanation are not your biggest problem.

Anonymous

Philip DeFranco said it best - what's to stop the protestors from abusing this uneven setup and instigating a situation before officers have a chance to turn their body cams on, then using the power of editing to make themselves look like the victims once and if the police respond?

As the nephew of both cops and attorneys, I see boths sides of the argument: I understand the fear of police recording citizens exercising their First Amendment right, but there should be considerations for the safety, both physical and legal, of the police.

They are there to provide for public safety, and it only seems fair that in pursuance of that prerogative they be able to record footage of a potential situation from beginning to end so that there is no absence of context. People should absolutely not have to be afraid of their government, but at the same time people should not be afraid of serving their government; especially if it's just because you didn't turn on your body cam fast enough to prove you were defending yourself against an aggressor(s). After all, these officers are citizens as well and should have a reasonable assurance to their own safety.

And you have to admit: it's almost guaranteed no protestor would turn over video evidence exonerating the police if they could use it to further their own agenda - especially when that agenda is villifying the government and civil servants. Otherwise these protestors will need to be fine with allegations of police brutality being thrown out in court without a FULL recording of the event, including the minutes leading up to hostilities, clearly showing the police as the instigators. It takes less time for an object to travel from a protestor's hand to a cop's head than it does for the cop to see the object, register what is happening in his/her mind, and move to turn on his/her body cam. So either everyone should get to keep their cameras on the whole time, or they should all have to wait until an "incident" occurs.

MxDoe

Pragmatic suggestion: at least in my city we use body cams with a 30s buffer. I was under the impression that this was generally true of the devices. (In a one-party recording state that was the only benign reason I could imagine for a model where that 30s is silent.
***
"it's almost guaranteed no protestor would turn over video evidence exonerating the police if they could use it to further their own agenda - especially when that agenda is villifying the government and civil servants"

Subpoenas. If they destroy the original recording they will risk charges of tampering with evidence. (Unless the person with the evidence is a cop in Chicago, or other departments with deeply toxic cultures.) Not to mention the proliferation of social media and a large mass of inexperienced protesters will be all-too-likely to post without considering the consequences at all.

"Otherwise these protestors will need to be fine with allegations of police brutality being thrown out in court without a FULL recording of the event, including the minutes leading up to hostilities, clearly showing the police as the instigators."

Are you going to apply that standard to everyone accused of a crime?

I'm going to hope you aren't an NYPD cop here. Or that you're terribly new. During the Occupy protests there was a young woman who was convicted based on a video that was presented to the jury starting with the frame where the officer first recognized himself. Which happened to exclude the initial video or discussion of why she'd thrown a blind elbow behind her.

At a stranger groping her breast in a crowd. She spent six months in jail.
***
[Nvm... Re-read] You are drawing this experience from relatives - probably in one department or city? Based on what they'll share with you. Your 'study' has some data quality issues, and that's true no matter how amazing these officers are. (You understand that right?)

I'll stick with the concerns that don't suggest something unethical (if not illegal) on the part of your uncle(s). (I am not accusing anyone - aside from the guy on video - of groping women to provoke a reaction that can be used to arrest them.) I'm mentioning the incident so I can point out that all those good cops you're thinking of are mentioned because there are at least some bad cops. Even if she's on trial, there's an allegation that he did something to target her, and used his position to sexually assault her. Can you imagine any other accused criminal getting the choice of where to start the tape?

Hopefully we can agree that police officers should be held to higher ethical standards than criminals - they're regularly working alone and are given a lot of power and a lot of trust. How many women did the ex-cop in Oklahoma rape before he went to trial? "With great power comes great responsibility" (still true even though I'm quoting Spiderman's uncle)

You seem to be under the impression that:
A - The majority of these protesters will come from the same circles as the protesters (and organizers, support, etc.] That protesting Trump in a women's march is going to make someone automatically join the dark side of... well..
B - Activists who are anti-police because... have you ever tried to understand the points being raised? the context for those points? And seriously, let's just assume your uncle(s) are working for highly ethical leadership. They can expect to be held accountable for serious breaches of public trust, procedure... certainly they expect to get fired if they really mess up. I'd bet that they get paid more than cops in my city too.

We hired a guy who was allowed to resign after having a meltdown on the live fire range and being told that he couldn't be trained enough to be an officer. Other local departments rejected him. Mine didn't call his former supervisor. Didn't raise an eyebrow over "under the table jobs" on an application to uphold laws. Hired a guy who said he wanted "more action" and immediately after training him for fewer hours than a barber, put him in an area of town with high rates of unsolved homicides. Then he had a shift in my neighborhood. Our department has use of force and escalation of force problems. His partner has a previous case (per police union procedure we were expunging any disciplinary action within 3 years for the most serious penalties - 30 days for a verbal warning iirc - it took a second consent decree in the too-short life of Tamir Rice to change that.
***
The "blue wall of silence" isn't a myth. I can tell you that from first person experience. One bad cop will be defended by three through silence or modified reports. Or pressuring a "suspect" to sign a statement by threatening to withhold medication without which I might have a seizure. Not all cops are bad. The vast majority of police - even in the worst departments - will never shoot anyone. (I was not shot.)

I'm white. I had a very inconvenient night... and eight months of fighting charges, along with a lingering anxiety about the next cop who pulls me over too... I honestly can't fathom being Philando Castile - pulled over more than 50 times?

The reason that the discussion centers on homicides and not situations like what I experienced is simple: if it's so easy to justify killing a man, how easy is it to justify repeatedly degrading him in order to fund the city.

Anonymous

Fucking hypocrites! aclu.org/other/police-body-mounted-cameras-right-policies-place-win-all

Teresa Toole

You have missed the point! Take a breath and re-read.There are differences between protest and daily police work. It is NOT supposed to be even. We are their bosses and their power over us needs to be moderated by US. This is democracy, unless YOU really want Putin's world.

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