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Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Police Body Cams In-Depth

#PoliceBodyCams #SoapboxSaturday #Police #Cameras #Privacy #Transparency #Government #Politics #VideoVigilantes #LawEnforcement #ThinBlueLine

   With the growing tensions between law enforcement and the public, many are looking to cameras as a solution to the mutual distrust. Police body cams promise unprecedented transparency in police activity for the public. They also provide indisputable and impartial video evidence for law enforcement. However, opponents are quick to point out complications regarding privacy concerns, and the logistics of using the body cams. Would putting cameras on our police officers be as good in practice as it is in theory?

   Cameras are good and practical for a number of situations. As an impartial, virtual third-party witness, they provide the kind of solid, unbiased evidence that first-person verbal accounts lack. In addition to eliminating the he-said/she-said, they also capture elements of a situation that human observers may overlook or forget. This invaluable resource could make or break legal cases.

   Consider the difference body cams could make in:
  • Proving/disproving officer misconduct
  • Crime scene investigation
  • Discouraging harassment and noncompliance
  • Reviewing responses to in-progress crimes
  • Reviewing suspect and witness interviews

   However, the obvious benefits are not without a couple downsides. If officers leave their cameras on 24/7, then they will undoubtedly capture private scenes. Conversations, the insides of people's homes, and the identities of the people they interact with will all be recorded. How long these records are kept, and to whom they would be distributed is cause for concern. Skeptics worry that the footage could be used for government spying or commercial exploitation. Turning off the cameras or deleting footage, however, would call into question why the cameras are there in the first place, and possibly lead to more police distrust. Deciding when and how police body cams should be used is a tricky balancing act.

   The seemingly simple solution of recording police activities is complicated by questions:
  • Do the police have a right to capture both audio and video at all times?
  • Should it be legal to release footage to the public, even with such steps as blurred faces and license plates being taken to conceal identities?
  • What happens when a suspect looks bad on camera, but is proven innocent by other means?
  • What happens when a suspect is clearly guilty, and the victim decides not to press charges?
  • What resources can be dedicated to compiling, managing, and editing body cam footage?
  • Will all due discretion be used to protect witnesses from criminals who may be targeting them?
  • How do body cams fit into state policies, such as the Public Records Act in Seattle, that require law enforcement to disclose their records?
  • What will be done with footage that does not directly relate to police activity, such as that of bystanders?
  • Where do Miranda Rights fit into this?
  • Will footage be available commercially for news, caught-on-camera shows, or YouTube?
  • What is the penalty for misuse of a camera?

   Although these concerns are legitimate, they shouldn't be cause to throw out the idea of using police body cams entirely. The problems can be solved with responsible policy based on existing privacy laws.
  • Turning off cameras in places where there's an expectation of privacy, such as the restroom.
  • Treating all footage from non-public places as strictly confidential
  • Turning off cameras when entering a home, except when responding to a crime in progress, or pursuing a search warrant
  • Giving a party the option to have audio, video, or both turned off during an interview
  • Giving parties the right to request that footage concerning them not be released to the public
  • Blurring faces, license plates, addresses, and other identifiable information when appropriate
  • Training all officers to follow the policy, and taking transgressions seriously

   In addition to practicing sound policy, it's important to approach the issue with the proper perspective. We need to remember that the police ultimately work for the people. Their official actions in the line of duty need to be able to be answered for. So, though it may be tempting to completely internalize camera footage for police eyes only, remember that one of the strongest arguments in favor of police body cams is the need for transparency in law enforcement. In addition to this, cameras will enforce the presence of a police officer as being representative of the presence of the law. Knowing that the public, too, will be answering to more than just an individual officer for their actions will discourage unlawful behavior in the presence of an officer. Cameras, when used wisely, will help both police and private citizens ensure that the law of the land is respected and enforced.

Thank you for reading! If you enjoyed this article, you may also like to check out some of my other posts. Here's what I recommend now:
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