The Justice Department announced today that it will tie federal grants for police body camera programs to the existence of good body camera policies. This is great news and the department is to be praised for using its leverage to help ensure that this technology increases community trust rather than eroding it, and fulfills its potential to reduce police violence.
According to the announcement, “successful applicants must demonstrate a commitment and adherence to a strong BWC Policy framework.” The solicitation for grant applications from the DOJ’s Bureau of Justice Assistance includes further detail:
Policy and practices should at minimum address technology usage, evidence acquisition, data storage and retention, as well as privacy issues, accountability, and discipline. They must also consider the impact of data collection and use on public trust and police legitimacy. Public record laws, which allow public access to information held by government agencies, including law enforcement, should also be evaluated and, when practicable, modified to protect the privacy of the individuals whose records they hold and to maintain the trust of the community. These policies and practices should at a minimum increase transparency and accessibility, provide appropriate access to information, allow for public posting of policy and procedures, and encourage community interaction and relationship building.
This language is highly confidence-inspiring, as it hits all of the key question marks that we have with any camera deployment. Simply requiring departments to have a policy, and make it public, is a good step all by itself, but as we have learned (most recently in the case of the LAPD), that is not enough as some departments are deploying cameras in ways that will NOT increase “public trust and police legitimacy.” As with everything to do with police body cameras, the devil lies in the details, and we hope that when it comes to those details the Justice Department’s implementation of this grant program will live up to its promising announcement. We would also like to see the department use its power of the purse in other ways to pressure police departments that do not have appropriate camera policies in place.