When Police Body Cameras Aren’t The Answer

This article originally appeared in USA Today

Earlier this month, a too familiar tragedy unfolded in East Los Angeles when Los Angeles police officers shot and killed 14-year-old Jesse Romero. Witness accounts vary — the police department says Romero fled when officers approached him on suspicion of scrawling graffiti in his neighborhood, then fired at officers. Some civilians say he had a gun but tossed it away.

As is increasingly common, the incident was captured on officers’ body cameras.

Los Angeles officials have touted body cameras as a way to provide transparency and accountability and build trust between police and the public in moments of crisis. But that’s not how it has played out because the LAPD’s policies for body cameras don’t provide transparency or assure the public that officers will be held accountable.

Instead, the department has stated that it generally holds videos from public view unless ordered by a court to release them. Romero’s family has called for the footage to be released.

According to LAPD policy, officers are able to review body cam footage before talking to investigators. Instead of promoting transparency and trust, LAPD’s body camera program has resulted in more questions than answers.

When body cameras were proposed nationwide, there seemed to be wide agreement they could be a game-changer for police interactions, oversight, and community relations. Public support has been through the roof. And body cameras have provided important evidence in at least some of the rare decisions to fire or criminally charge officers for shootings or dishonesty. But as departments put cameras on the streets, the evidence of their effectiveness has been much more mixed. An early study of the small police force in Rialto, Calif., found that officers wearing cameras are much less likely to use force or to be subject to complaints from civilians.

But other studies are far less conclusive, with at least one showing an increase in the use of lower-level force and another that use of force increases when officers have more discretion over when to activate cameras. Against this ambiguous backdrop, police reform advocates have raised concerns about the cameras’ privacy implications, surveillance potential, and susceptibility to misuse.

Despite these questions, departments nationwide are moving to adopt body cameras. It is vital that those departments have strong policies that ensure cameras are used for accountability, not surveillance.

Departments must clearly require officers to record every investigative interaction with a member of the public. While constant recording could risk civilians’ and officers’ privacy, departments can — and must — monitor compliance and discipline those who fail to record when they should. Officers who repeatedly fail to record incidents should be identified and corrected — or fired — long before they’re involved in a serious incident.

When there’s a shooting or other investigation, policies must require officers to give initial accounts of what happened and why they acted as they did before watching the body camera video. Seeing the video allows cops who are inclined to lie to tailor their story to the evidence. Even for officers who try to tell the truth, seeing the video will impact how they remember an incident. What helps investigators piece together the whole truth is the officers’ subjective memory of what they thought at the time. The police don’t let other witnesses watch the video of a shooting before providing a statement or show other suspects the evidence in a case before interviewing them. Police shouldn’t have such an advantage.

Video of shootings and other potential misconduct must be released, pursuant to policies that ensure they don’t just get out when it helps the officers. Transparency allows the public to judge for themselves whether police are acting in keeping with a community’s values, and whether the institutions charged with holding officers accountable are working.

Finally, departments should clearly prohibit use of body cameras as surveillance tools. Video shouldn’t be accessed unless there’s reason to think it contains evidence of crime or misconduct, and data-mining tools, such as facial recognition, mustn’t be used on the video. Moreover, strict limits should be placed on how long footage is retained. The public supports body cameras as tools for police accountability. Mission creep into surveillance should be stopped at the outset.

The policies that govern the use of body cameras matter. Sadly, a recent study shows many departments’ policies are seriously flawed, if they have any public policy on the cameras at all. This can and must be fixed.

Body cameras will never be a cure-all for police misconduct or the crisis of confidence in law enforcement that many of us feel. But if they are to be any help at all — and they could be — they must be done right.

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Anonymous

Body cameras should be controlled by the operations center. Body cameras should run constantly except when a call to operations is for lunch or bathroom breaks. It would make a great tool for efficiency. Officers do not have a reasonable right to privacy as they observe and are observed. Body cameras should automatically upload to operations.

Anonymous

Not exactly sure how dispatch works. But couldn't the cameras be turned on and off by the dispatcher remotely instead of the officers themselves?

itstherecit

body camera "policies" must become standardized, either at state or federal levels, preferably federal....matter of factly, all "policies" should become standardized and then made accessible to the public...in too many incidences we hear that the cops "followed a policy and procedure" which they then claim legitimized the actions of the cop...policy is not law...it is an opinion and can be molded into any shape deemed desirable by a law enforcement agency ....we should accept no excuse as to the withholding of body camera footage when police action is questioned and zero review by police agencies should be permitted until said footage can be viewed by the state and a party independent of the police and any state agency

Anonymous

Policy can be equal to the law or more restrictive. It can never violate law. You're understanding of police policy is wrong.

Private White C...

Not sure why everyone is so surprised by this. We citizens allow it to happen. Police brutality and human rights violations are common place all over our nation. In the south and big cities it's all about keeping minorities from advancing themselves; "Whites" fear the Blacks, Mexican, Asian, and Arab. In the northeast and west it's all about keeping the status quo. Ahhhh yeah, the good ole status fukin quo. No camera can stop it, no movement can sqwash it; inaction to change has proven to be the white mans best weapon.
Although, Not all whites are bad just as not all police are bad. But the sad truth is that most police are white and most whites fear anyone different than them so they will continue to abuse their authority until a system can be created to root out corruption.

Anonymous

An independent archiving agency (independent of police and prosecutors) would solve many of the problems.

Basically nobody gets to review any of the footage unless they present a judicial warrant to the archiving agency. That would solve the problem of recording in restrooms or recording inside private homes. There is actually a federal model called the "National Security Archive" located at a university following an incident where a federal bureaucrat was trying to destroy evidence.

The discontinued TV police series "Rookie Blue" in 2015 also had an excellent body camera episode that an independent archiving agency would solve.

Anonymous

As a law enforcement officer I believe you should record everything but bathrooms and release everything except inside bathrooms. If you want transparency lets have it. Then the public will get to see the same idiots doing the same things we see every day. I have advised my agency if we get them to show everything and I bet they will not last. The public does not want the transparency they argue for as they may be on tonight's episode.

Herbert Sanderson

The reason the police want to be able to review video before speaking to investigators, is so they will know what they can lie about and what they can't lie about. Law enforcement officers lie in every case. That's right, every case. Sometimes to make themselves into hero's , almost every time to win a case, and sometimes to protect themselves from prosecution. Body cams will not protect citizens at all. Not until there is a politician or a judge that will stand up to police. As long as police unions have a say in the rules that govern the use of body cams they will only protect police. Not even to mention allow them new tools to use to be able to make up whatever story they want. Police should not be able to set the terms under which they will wear a body cam. they should wear one for complete transparency, or they shouldn't be allowed to police. The fact that they want to make any rules to govern their use, is very telling. It screams they want to be corrupt and they don't want anything to interfere with them, stealing, abusing power or murdering citizens.

Anonymous

Pretty hard to lie if it's on tape. C'mon now.

Sally G

I always was nervous about the rush to body cameras as a solution to all the problems. It was clear to me that they needed careful implementation if they were to help and not just be another tool for corrupt officers to hide behind. They could very well be an individualized version of George Orwell’s Big Brother.

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