Police Body Cameras: Finding the Balance Between Accountability and Civil Liberties

Police departments across the nation are rolling out body camera programs, but just how effective are they, and what guidelines should be in place for their use? Though it is tempting to view body cameras as a panacea for community and police relations, they also raise concerns about civil liberty.

Representatives from the Charles Koch Institute, The Constitution Project, and Upturn met earlier this week for a discussion about the risks of body camera use and the recommended policies and procedures for police departments.

Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina opened the evening with remarks about the potential role of body cameras in “bridging the gap between law enforcement and the communities where they serve, and specifically communities of color.” Senator Scott touched on a theme that was consistent throughout the evening—namely, that we ought to be focused on finding the root causes of the challenges police officers and their communities experience.

Will Ruger, the Charles Koch Institute’s vice president for research and policy, echoed Senator Scott’s sentiments. “Americans will see this as the solution,” he said, “when in fact it may be part of the solution. We just have to remember we need other types of reform to heal those issues.”

The panel identified issues of privacy, disclosure, and freedom of information as areas of risk for body camera use. Sakria Cook from the Leadership Conference stated, “The rapid growth and adoption of cameras is happening without having clear guidelines in places that govern civil rights and civil liberties. The camera is not looking at the police officer, it’s looking at you and I.”

Ralph Ennis, commander at the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington, DC, explained how his department’s policy regulates who can see the video captured by body cameras. To ensure privacy, footage captured inside private residences is not “FOIA-able.”

Washington, DC, currently has the largest deployment of police body cameras, and researchers are running studies to determine their effectiveness by analyzing information such as complaints against officers and rates of convictions. Despite the widespread use of police body cameras, research on them is limited. Harlan Yu from Upturn emphasized the importance of increased research into body cameras: “Accountability is not automatic just because a department adopts cameras.”

Cook and Yu both pointed out the wide variety of policies police departments are using—some with effective protections for civil liberties and others that need improvement—and referenced their organization’s jointly researched police body camera scorecard.

Furthermore, the panelists discussed at which point an officer should be allowed to see body camera footage. All panelists agreed that officers should give a statement before viewing the video so that initial perceptions can be accurately judged without outside interference. “It’s not because you want to play ‘gotcha’ with the police officer,” said Ruger. “It’s important to understand the [initial] mindset.”

Then, the conversation moved towards what body cameras mean for increased surveillance, specifically with the incorporation of facial recognition technology. Harlan Yu warned that facial recognition was seen by communities of color as the biggest risk associated with body cameras, and that “body cameras should be tools for accountability, not tools for surveillance.”

As the discussion concluded with a brief Q&A, the importance of broader policing was strongly emphasized, especially by Ralph Ennis.

Police body cameras are a tool that offer both promise and risk, potentially reducing officer misconduct but endangering civil liberties if misused. Broader policing reform should be emphasized as officers engage with their communities to protect against further damaging relations.

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