Police use of body cameras raises hope for change ... and privacy fears

Wide scale adoption inches closer to reality

WASHINGTON, D.C. - On October 1, the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington, D.C., began a six-month pilot program to outfit officers with body cameras. Experts estimate that around 20 percent of the 18,000 police departments in the country are testing body cameras, including those in New York City, Mesa, Arizona, and Los Angeles.

The body camera tests come at a time when the nation still is paying close attention to police conduct following the Aug. 9 shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. Criminal justice experts and advocacy organizations say the use of body cameras puts American society on the verge of a fundamental change in how we police ourselves.

Police interest in body cameras began long before Brown’s death. But the ensuing controversy in Ferguson has prompted some departments to accelerate the adoption of the technology, says Mike White, associate professor at the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Arizona State University.

Eventually, according to White, official video recordings of police interactions with the public will become the norm.

“Within 28 days of Michael Brown’s death, the officers of Ferguson were wearing body cameras. In a relatively short period of time, it will be considered standard practice. It’s not going away. In the next few years you’re going to see the majority of the police departments in the U.S. moving in this direction,” White says.

The wide-scale adoption of cameras would draw much needed attention to police practices that need improvement, in particular the treatment of minorities and people of color, says Jeffrey Mittman, executive director of the Missouri Civil Liberties Union.

“What the media is now showing is what communities of color have long known. They are targeted and treated differently. There are documents of those encounters which in some instances are incredibly disrespectful,” Mittman says. “All too often if there is a misconduct by an officer, it can result in a case of he said versus she said. The word of the mistreated might not carry equal weight as that of a police officer.”

But there also are understandable privacy concerns when it comes to implementing these body cameras in day-to-day police work. Peter Bibring, director of police practices and senior staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, says this is especially true when police use legal authority to enter situations that are otherwise private, like people’s homes.

“You need clear policies that bar them from releasing footage. They need to be uploaded directly to secure storage where it can only be accessed for law enforcement purposes. We have to make sure that potentially humiliating video footage doesn’t end up on the evening news or on YouTube,” Bibring says.

The Los Angeles Police Department has been tracking body camera technology since 2006 and recently completed two trial programs. Sergeant Daniel Gomez, who oversees technology projects for the LAPD,  says body cameras are only as good as the larger system to which it belongs.

 “Anytime you can add to a documentation, add to a narrative, that’s helpful. But one piece of audio or video doesn’t constitute an entire investigation,” says Gomez. “It’s not just the camera itself, it’s the system, it’s the policies that govern the system, it’s the supporting infrastructure, the storage, working with the courts, privacy issues—all those things are factors to consider in how you move forward with a thoughtful plan.”

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