April 8, 2015

The Case for Officer Body Cameras and Sensible Legislation Surrounding Them

body cameras, Boston Police Department, First Amendment, police reform

by Nashwa Gewaily, Fellow at the ACLU of Massachusetts.

On the evening of March 27, an apparent shootout left a police officer critically wounded and a man dead on the streets of Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood. As word of the incident spread, divergent narratives emerged and questions abounded across social media and news sites. In the aftermath, the Boston Police Department and its commissioner were widely praised in traditional media outlets for quickly sharing with select community figures an unbiased account of what had transpired: video footage from a nearby business that captured critical moments of the encounter.

In the wake of a number of high-profile fatal police encounters, followed by community outrage and mass demonstrations, one could easily anticipate the heavy cloud of tension over Boston had nothing been produced to clear the air.  This incident is one of tragic many that reveal the benefits of capturing police encounters on video.

Yet, it comes at a time when states are scrambling to make it much more difficult for police incident footage – specifically, police encounters recorded by body-worn cameras – to see the light of day. Citing privacy concerns, legislators in at least 15 states have introduced bills that would exempt from public records law or otherwise limit the disclosure of police-civilian encounter footage obtained from body cameras.  While there is certainly an obvious need to protect the privacy of anyone videotaped by police, the over breadth of many of the proposed rules only serve to undermine the transparency that is sorely needed to bring accountability to police departments.

As the national conversation about body cameras continues to evolve post-Ferguson, privacy has become the lightning rod issue.  Any use of police body cameras must be accompanied by strong, stringently enforced policies and practices – particularly when it comes to preventing surveillance of First Amendment-protected activities, safeguarding expectations of privacy in one’s own home, honoring individual requests not to record interactions, giving notice to subjects being recorded, and deleting footage that is not flagged for review.  It is critical to strike the proper balance between individual privacy and police accountability interests, between common sense measures against voyeuristic video disclosures and the need for informed public oversight of police behavior.

But what is clear is that privacy interests should not be wielded as a cudgel to shut down consideration of implementing body cameras altogether.  The issue deserves serious engagement, not derailing a discussion on balancing interests with straw-man distractions. (“Do you have the body camera on when you go to the bathroom?” No, Boston Police Superior Officers Union President Jack Kervin, probably not.)  Here in Boston, a robust public discussion to formulate appropriate public records guidelines is not even on the horizon. That’s because Boston continues to lag behind other police departments that have taken proactive steps to improve their policing. Beyond noncommittal statements about their openness to discussing body cameras, Boston’s mayor and police commissioner have given no indication of plans to make real changes in the department.

And that’s a shame considering the potential to drastically improve the state of community policing in Boston and across Massachusetts, as officials want to do.  Police officers, just like everyone else, behave differently when they know they are being watched. It follows that officers would be much less likely to engage in abusive, racially discriminatory, or harassing behavior when they are on heightened notice of possibly being held to account. This is compelling reason enough in a city that has subjected thousands of its residents to racially-biased, unjustified intrusions on its streets.

Although we have yet to see how body cameras will play out in the long-run, one widely cited study shows that use of the device has led to a 60 percent drop in use of force and a nearly 90 percent drop in complaints against police in Rialto, California last year. More recently, similarly promising results were found when the San Diego Police Department tested their use.  Police departments across the country, in small towns and big cities alike, are deploying, testing, or seriously analyzing the use of police body-worn cameras. Here in Boston, when it comes to genuine police reforms we can only hope that a police department that claims “the highest of standards” will take some cues and catch up to towns like Gill, Massachusetts, where a single officer has been outfitted with a body-worn camera.

The Boston Police Department’s video disclosure following the recent Roxbury shootout is a good example of increasing transparency around police actions, despite the limited nature of this particular release. But police must be willing to uphold the same values of transparency when video captures unjust and illegal police misconduct as when video potentially exculpates the police themselves. Police forces can work toward relationships with the public that engender trust and respect, but these efforts won’t succeed unless they are accompanied by a genuine commitment to meaningful reforms.  Body-worn cameras are no panacea for unaccountable police. But if they can lead to fewer abuses, less misconduct, more professionalized police forces and fewer deaths on the street, then their benefits far outweigh their potential for undue privacy intrusions.

It should serve as a galvanizing moment for the Boston Police Department to seriously engage with calls to equip its officers with body-worn cameras.

Criminal Justice