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3 Questions to Ask Before Putting Cameras on Cops

Rob Pegoraro
Contributing Editor
Yahoo Tech
Police officer wearing body camera

(Wochit)

Two weeks ago, many of us were sure that if only Darren Wilson had had a body camera, justice would have been more easily served in Ferguson, Missouri — that a video record would have cleared the confusion over Officer Wilson’s fatal shooting of Michael Brown.

Then, a week ago — only two days after President Obama proposed putting 50,000 more police body cameras into service — things didn’t look so clear. Video taken by a passerby of Eric Garner’s fatal chokehold arrest did not stop a grand jury from declining to bring an indictment.

It’s not the first time a promised technological solution has looked less shiny upon closer inspection, but the stakes for this technology are extraordinarily high.

Before we follow our habit of attaching a camera to anything that moves — if we can put them on our dashboards and on our drones, why not our cops? — we need to ask a few questions, and get some good answers.

“Any police department that wants to use body cameras, it’s a good decision,” said Electronic Frontier Foundation staff attorney Hanni Fakhoury. “But you can’t just throw the cameras out there and let the details sort themselves out.”

Here are the key questions the policed public needs answers to:

1. When are the cameras on?
A report last October by American Civil Liberties Union policy analyst Jay Stanley laid out the contradictions involved in police body cameras. On the one hand, maximum accountability would suggest that the camera stay on for the officer’s entire shift; on the other, cops have privacy rights, too, as do the people the police interact with.

Stanley’s paper came down to recommending that police body cameras record all citizen interactions — which is basically the rule Washington’s Metropolitan Police Department adopted for its trial of body cameras.

That 18-page document details the occasions that require turning the camera on or off, as well as what officers must not do with cameras or their output. 

For instance, officers may not “post recordings to any social media site.” They also can’t stop a recording when a citizen asks, unless there’s an anonymous tip involved.

Delroy Burton, chairman of the D.C. police union, said those rules — written with the union’s input — were working out so far, as were the cameras. “The report that I’m getting from my members on the street that are actually operating the cameras is they are not having a lot of problems with them.”

They have had problems elsewhere. Albuquerque Officer Jeremy Dear did not have his camera on when he fatally shot Mary Hawkes in April; after a review, the department fired him for insubordination.

2. What are the recordings used for?
So you put these cameras into the field and now have all this video piling up. What will you do with it?

Jeramie Scott, national-security counsel with the Electronic Privacy Information Center, allowed for one use: “only for police accountability.” In other words, only to confirm what the officer witnessed to make an arrest –– not for retroactive searching for offenses he or she missed at the time.

The temptation will be to find other uses for this data. Scott warned against combining facial-recognition technology with body-camera footage — something Chicago has been doing with footage from its surveillance cameras.

The EFF’s Fakhoury had other questions to ask. Can you match the footage with other databases? Share it with other police departments? What about outside agencies?

The single stickiest aspect involves not other cops looking at body-cam video, but you or me. Public-records laws in states are not clear on this front, the ACLU’s Stanley warned.

“In some states” — he cited Washington and Minnesota — “it seems pretty clear that it would cover all video.”

And while police departments know how to redact private data from papers released under public-records laws, Burton said (correctly) that doing the same with video is not as quick or easy.

3. How long are they kept?
Privacy experts I consulted agreed that police departments should not act like the National Security Agency or, say, tech startups too young to hire chief privacy officers: They should throw away data at their earliest convenience.

The MPD’s guidelines call for deleting body-cam videos after 90 days unless they’ve been flagged as relevant to an investigation, which roughly matches the ACLU’s recommendations that retention periods “be measured in weeks, not years.”

The budgets and technical capacities of many police departments would suggest a short shelf life for these recordings. But as a Washington Post story noted, the vendors of these systems also offer cloud services — for instance, Taser’s Evidence.com — to automate the work of storing all this footage.

The sight of police departments being compelled to buy this hardware, and then signing up for long-term service contracts, evokes an unpleasant precedent. After the 2000 election, old-fashioned voting machines were deemed out of style, and municipalities rushed to deploy electronic voting machines.

Many of these came with dubious security systems and from companies that have since gone out of business — but, years later, we’re stuck with them.

It’s complicated
As the ACLU’s Stanley said, “This is a genuinely complicated issue. It implicates conflicting values that we hold dearly.”

It’s sufficiently complicated that the EFF and EPIC have yet to post their own policy prescriptions. They’re still figuring this out. So am I.

Maybe before we mandate the massive deployment of what amounts to a surveillance technology, we should at least know how many people die as a result of police action. Today, we don’t.

Meanwhile, if you spot what looks like an abuse of police power, take out your phone and record it. It’s your right as a citizen, and it just might be your obligation, too. As the law-enforcement community is fond of saying: If you see something, say something.

Email Rob at rob@robpegoraro.com; follow him on Twitter at @robpegoraro.