Police body cameras raise concern from citizens regarding privacy and private property. 3,000 out of 18,000 law enforcement agencies have begun the practice of equipping their officers with small cameras that can be worn at all times. But as the technology becomes more affordable and reliable, experts expect that the numbers will rise exponentially. While some hail this as a long-awaited way to ensure officers will be help responsible for their actions, worries are rising that always being on camera may have a downside for the people officers interact with.
The technology has spread faster than the paperwork can keep up, meaning there are a lot of holes in the policies used to govern the use of police body cameras. In many departments officers are instructed to wear the device at all times but when to turn it on or off is often left to their discretion. Some say that the cameras should be turned off if an officer is responding to a call that requires them to enter a private residence, such as domestic disturbances or burglaries. But others say that allowing an officer to pick and choose what is recorded will defeat the purpose of recording in the first place by allowing an officer to simply not record a situation that may warrant further review, either due to their actions or the actions of the citizens involved.
Police body cameras raise concern in other areas as well, such as who is allowed to watch the tape after it is recorded, and how long it will be kept on record. Viewing rights are hotly debated, body camera expert Scott Greenwald contends that citizens should not have the right to see footage they do not have the right to observe physically. Journalists do not accompany police when they investigate a search warrant, so any footage recorded should be shown in the way news footage would be, is the example he cites.
As for how long the footage stays in storage, the statute of limitations gives a convenient number. In California the time is a year, so its been recommended to hang onto pertinent footage for at least that long before it is deleted. In the case of ongoing investigations, special orders would be to keep the footage until the trials and proceedings are completely concluded. Footage of officers simply walking the beat and interacting with citizens that are not connected with current investigations is usually deleted after 30 to 90 days however. Rialto California police departments say they currently plan to keep felony related footage for 7 years, and homicide related footage for at least a century. In Los Angeles the minimum time is 5 years.
Although the reasons that police body cameras raise concern are legitimate, it is likely that there is more to gain than to lose should the cameras become as wide-spread as is expected. There has already been a trend identified in which officers wearing cameras contributed to a reduction in both officer and citizen misbehaviour, including officers being too rough and citizens refusing to acknowledge officers requests.
By Daniel O’Brien
San Fransisco Gate