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  • Kristen Abitabile

What to expect from body cameras

Updated: Oct 18, 2023

In the past​ year, the news has been flooded with stories of police killings of unarmed individuals. Several high-profile deaths including Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Walter Scott have sparked public debate, with many asking: why aren’t all police officers wearing body cameras? In May of this year, the Justice Department announced a three-year, $75 million dollar plan to fund police departments for approximately 50,000 body cameras. The money will also go towards studying the effects of law enforcement’s use of body cameras, as well as to the training and technical assistance of officers.

But why are some states slow to strap their cops with a recording device? For example, Maryland does not require officers to wear body cameras; however, 19 local departments are using them. Financial constraints are a factor, but many feel that the cost is well worth it. Many police cruisers are already equipped with dashboard cameras that we are familiar with from the plethora of reality shows involving police officers making traffic stops or orchestrating sting operations. Dash-cams seem like they are effective at corroborating an officer’s account of the story, so why not give police officers the same benefit of verification when they step out of their vehicles?

For one, while cameras may seem like a fail-safe way to confirm the circumstances of a police encounter, many people are concerned with the privacy aspect of the cameras’ recordings. DC Mayor Muriel Bowser initially considered a policy that would greatly limit the public’s access to the recordings. Such footage would be allowed in courts, but would be very limited to the public and to the press. Her hope was to furnish all police officers with body cameras, but prevent footage from being obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests. However, over the summer she changed her stance: her new plan would allow for victims and those essentially “caught on camera” to view a copy of the footage within 90 days of the recording. This access would be limited to recordings taken place in a private area, or to recordings that could violate someone’s privacy rights. Regardless, this proposed legislation would make DC the city with the most public access to the footage.

But what happens if you are a bystander to a traffic stop that becomes out of control, and eventually lands on YouTube? Now, anyone can access that video and know where you were, at what time, who you were with, what you were doing, etc. We are already living in a world that is under constant surveillance, where every move is recorded and things we write/text/email will stick with us forever. But are we ready to be under constant surveillance by police officers, too? If people know that approaching a police officer with a question, concern, or to report a crime means they will be recorded, would it dissuade them from willingly interacting with law enforcement? Some law enforcement officials are concerned that cameras rolling 24/7 might make the community more hesitant to engage when police officers, especially when they are needed the most.

Other questions involve the actual data itself. There are major privacy concerns surrounding the storage, archiving, and access to video surveillance. What becomes of the immaterial recordings? There will undoubtedly be hours of footage that will not be necessary in a legal dispute or criminal case. Where do we house all of this data? And how can we ensure that there is not a major breach of privacy when protected footage is leaked? How can the government ensure total security from third party breaches? All of these questions are legitimate and as we’ve seen with several data breaches this year – nothing digital is ever 100% secure.

No doubt that police officers wearing body cameras will produce more accurate accounts of interactions with law enforcement, for the benefit of both sides. Even the ACLU, which has been a champion for privacy rights and a leader in the discussion about the NSA surveillance, has given their overall blessing for law enforcement to be wearing body cameras. Although, in March of this year, they did produce a lengthy recommendation for protecting the rights of the individuals caught on camera on their website.

Police use of body cameras 24/7 also poses an interesting problem for attorneys on both sides of the case. For one thing, attorneys will need someone in their officer to be the full-time reviewer of crime-scene footage. Let’s say there is an incident involving several officers or several defendants, and the incident takes place over an hour. That could be hours and hours of footage that the prosecution, the defense team, their support staffs, and the courts will all have to review. While private defense teams may have the resources to do so, the government may feel the burden of reviewing all the recordings of each crim

e they prosecute. Also, attorneys rarely want footage of their client doing something illegal or acting in an unfavorable light. Access to footage of every police encounter can lead to attorneys submitting more motions to dismiss the footage as prejudicial (or under some other legal argument), which can clog up the entire process. In the coming months and years, practitioners should stay up-to-date on new policies and procedures surrounding body camera usage. It seems that states may each take customized approaches on how to deal with privacy concerns, and the amount of access (or lack thereof) to law enforcement footage can greatly affect practitioners’ work flows.


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