Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Police Worn Cameras: Technology Gift or Privacy Curse?

File:Lapel cameras (9816063276).jpgIn an era where virtually everyone has the capacity to record video, it comes as no surprise that some police forces have decided to equip officers with body-worn cameras to wear during traffic stops and investigations.  The use of technology raises many questions concerning privacy rights of both citizens and officers and the public perception of police officers while using cameras.  The effect still remains to be seen, but some interesting statistics have been offered in support of use by a new report studying the success of programs which implement police-worn camera devices.

The report, entitled “Self-Awareness To Being Watched and Socially-Desirable Behavior: A Field Experiment on the Effect of Body-Worn Cameras On Police Use of Force,” shows that people often act much differently when they know they are being watched and recorded.  This is especially true when the recording is being performed by a “rule-enforcing” entity like a police department.  The report raises the question whether landmark issues like the Rodney King beating still would have occurred if police officers knew they were being recorded.  Even still, would everyday citizens find themselves acting in a character of submission when interacting with a police officer wearing such a device?

Although the idea of being watched is one heavily researched, there is not a large body of research that specifically looks to being watched by video cameras.  The most analogous findings have been attributed to CCTV’s and speed cameras.  Researchers hypothesize that mobile cameras would have a bigger impact than CCTVs and speeding cameras because of the blatant knowledge of those being recorded knowing that they are being recorded.

The experiment was conducted on a mid-size police department in California where they equipped all officers with highly visible cameras to wear on their person during traffic stops.  The study lasted for twelve months and findings suggested that use of force issues dropped by more than fifty percent.  Researchers also pointed out that the actions of those having interactions with the police were also affected. For example, civilians are less likely to initiate confrontation when they know they are being recorded.

Opponents of police-worn cameras ask whether it is actually helpful to have even more surveillance of everyday citizens.  The American Civil Liberties Union suggests that surveillance in general causes some problems because it allows the population to be recorded en masse.  However, the organization points out that allowing citizens to watch the actions of the government vis à vis the police is a good idea.  Nevertheless, issues are still raised on how certain recordings can be manipulated.

In order for such video recordings to be valuable, it is important that they cannot be tampered with or edited by the police officers or any other system.  In Laurel, Maryland, where police are currently using such technology, officers are unable to tamper with what is being recorded.  However, officers are able to determine when and if they should turn on the recording device.  This raises the issue of complete accountability from the standpoint of the police department.  If officers are able to subjectively determine when to use video recording equipment, the purpose of such cameras may be lost.

In Louisiana, police departments are trying to determine best practices when instituting such devices.  Civilians are finding it difficult to get the recorded videos from the department and are looking for answers.  There, an independent monitoring system is stepping in to help people gain more access to the videos of police interactions without violating any public record laws.

There are also some privacy concerns for police officers.  The head of the police department in Rialto, California found that the cameras were a tough sell to his department that felt that such constant surveillance was a breach of their privacy.  The chief raised the important fact that if the police did not use the cameras, they would be vulnerable to other bystanders using their own devices to record scenes allowing the issue of bias and tampering.  Seen in this way, the idea seems to be a win-win for police officers.
Do civilians benefit from such recording?  Video tape from a police officer can be a prosecutor’s dream.  It has been found that juries are less likely to listen to testimony from police officers or other witnesses when they are able to watch what happens on video. Many juries take footage from videos as the complete story without input from officers or civilians that were present at the scene.  But if civilians are not warned that they are being recorded, are such videos a violation of their constitutional rights?  In Pittsburgh it was determined that the use of such cameras on police officers were a violation of the Pennsylvania wiretapping law.   This was determined after the police department had spent over 100,000 dollars on a video recording system.  Recently, the governor went on to sign new legislation that would allow police officers to wear camera equipment. Some in opposition claim that the bill, Senate Bill 57, put too much emphasis on the requests from police departments and did not include enough protection for privacy rights. Opponents argue that the law should have required police officers to wear the cameras at all time so that there could be no manipulating of the types of video the police were willing to release.  

In Maryland, officers usually give some warning at the beginning of interactions to allow civilians to know they are being recorded but it is unclear if this is required by the police department. Although cameras always remain on, they do not record until an officer initiates the recording. Officers are able to view footage from their camera but are not able to edit footage. Officers turn in all footage to the department at the end of each day and although officers can only view their own footage, supervisors are able to view the footage of all of the officers that they oversee. Here, like in Pennsylvania, police officers still have some authority over what they actually record.  Although prosecutors support the use of cameras and believe they can be used as a great tool when dealing with police complaints and altercations, the Prince George’s County State’s Attorney’s Office, the prosecuting authority for Laurel, Maryland, has yet to use any of Laurel’s body-cam video.

It is important for practitioners to stay connected to the emerging technology, and laws that govern it, in their community.  It is quite possible that many different areas will start following California and Maryland’s lead with increasing accountability through the use of police worn cameras.  Both prosecutors and defense attorneys should support laws that make sure that civilians are warned of their rights at the start of any recording and that require police officers to keep footage from every interaction where they have the permission to record.  This both protects privacy rights and keeps the police department transparent.  Making sure that all interactions are recorded does not allow a significant advantage to either side and can begin to serve as a non-bias analysis of policing in communities.  As departments across the county continue to grapple with the decision to institute officer-worn devices we will begin to see both the positive and negative effects of trying to enforce police accountability.

Erica McKinney
Staffer, Criminal Law Practitioner

Photo by West Midlands Police (United Kingdom) via Wikimedia Commons.

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