Are body-mounted cameras the answer for transparency in police departments?
Despite increased interest in the technology, state public records laws could shield footage from the public
The shooting death of an unarmed, black 18-year-old in Ferguson, Mo., last summer has brought national attention to police tactics, transparency and safety.
After former police officer Darren Wilson fatally shot Michael Brown in August 2014, differing eyewitness accounts accompanied with autopsy reports gave a muddied account of what happened in the St. Louis suburb. Even the grand jury decision in November, which did not indict Wilson for any charges in Brown’s death, failed to provide a precise account.
Multiple police shootings since Brown’s death helped prompt interest in arming officers with body-mounted cameras — technology some open government activists and President Obama argue could provide clarity in future incidents, protecting both the officers and the people they encounter.
Despite some resistance from police agencies, departments have increasingly embraced the technology in the wake of Brown’s death, including on college campuses like California State University, Fullerton, and the University of Kansas.
In its decision to mount surveillance cameras on university police officers, James Anguiano, captain of KU’s Public Safety Office, said officials “felt that body-mounted cameras would assist not only the officers, but would help the public in seeking incidents firsthand.”
“The feedback we do get on the street is positive feedback,” he said. “The students are glad to see officers wear the body cameras.”
In December, President Obama announced an initiative to invest $75 million over three years to purchase 50,000 body cameras for law enforcement officers, providing a 50-percent match to states and localities that purchase body cameras and storage.
Despite a promise of increased transparency in police activities, however, state public records laws may shield the footage from the public. Footage likely won’t be released if it is part of an ongoing investigation or if certain details, such as the identities of victims in sensitive situations, cannot be redacted.
How does it work?
TASER, a company that makes body-mounted cameras, has supplied cameras to more than 1,200 law enforcement agencies since 2009, said spokesman Steve Tuttle. These cameras have increased in popularity in the last few months, he said, but they have been used by police in the U.S. for a few years. They even peaked in sales before Brown was killed.
TASER cameras, Tuttle said, are always on in buffer mode, which constantly captures video without audio, deleting itself every 30 seconds. If the officers on duty were to respond to an incident, they would turn the cameras on — capturing the prior 30 seconds of recording and enabling audio.
All footage is uploaded to cloud-based website Evidence.com. Only administrators in each department have access to the footage, and access for certain people within the department is handled on a department-by-department basis.
A BrickHouse Security survey shows about 72 percent of people believe police officers should be required to wear body cameras.
In a 2014 report for the Department of Justice, Michael White, a professor of criminology at Arizona State University, reviewed evidence on body cameras and the experiences of police departments around the world. White found some major benefits to the devices, but he also outlined a few lingering unanswered questions and concerns.
The report found what seems to be a success in Rialto, Calif. Since 2012, all Rialto officers have worn body cameras. In the first year of the program, use of force by officers dropped 60 percent, and citizen complaints declined by 88 percent.
But if a reporter wanted access to the footage, they would have to submit a public records request to the law enforcement agency. Tuttle said the press would not be given access to Evidence.com.
Records may be exempt
In many states, law enforcement agencies are not required to release “investigatory records” — records that may contain active leads or other information that could jeopardize an ongoing police investigation were it to become publicly known. Under Kansas’ public records law, records about ongoing criminal investigations or “confidential investigative techniques or procedures,” would not be released to the public, similar to the law in Washington, D.C.
Tuttle said footage could also be exempt from a records request because it has not cleared the department for a “myriad of reasons,” including privacy issues for victims captured in the footage, especially victims of sexual assault or domestic violence.
“Some of those things are a lot more sensitive and require different sets of rulings,” he said. “Now, there is a feature that allows redaction, but again that’s up to the agencies of whether they do that or not.”
At KU, all records requests go through the general counsel’s police department, Anguiano said. If the footage was part of an ongoing criminal investigation, release of the footage “would have to wait until that investigation was adjudicated.”
Anguiano said the police department has yet to receive a records requests for video footage from journalists since the practice at KU began in August 2014. They have received requests from lawyers for “prosecution or for defense purposes.”
In some instances, law enforcement agencies are given discretion on what body camera footage they release, with or without a records request, such as in Greensboro, N.C., where police released footage of a juvenile who held a knife to her chin and then threw the knife at one of the responding officers. Another incident in Laurel, Md., showed the events that led up to an officer tazing a woman, who ran from her car after driving drunk — away from the police — and then crashing it into a pole.
“They can do it once it’s been cleared by that department,” Tuttle said. “Some agencies have different protocols of how they release the videos.”
However, Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst for the American Civil Liberties Union, wrote that police departments should establish retention rates, “measured in weeks not years,” to delete any footage that is not flagged in order to protect the privacy of citizens.
“Unredacted, unflagged recordings should not be publicly disclosed without consent of the subject,” Stanley wrote. “These are recordings where there is no indication of police misconduct or evidence of a crime, so the public oversight value is low.”
KU’s police department has a retention rate of 90 days for its records of video footage, Anguiano said. Footage involving criminal cases or traffic offenses an officer considers important could be held past the 90-day retention rate.
But even with the ACLU’s concerns over the privacy of subjects in video footage, body-mounted cameras have the potential to “serve as a check against the abuse of power by police officers,” Stanley wrote.
“Historically, there was no documentary evidence of most encounters between police officers and the public, and due to the volatile nature of those encounters, this often resulted in radically divergent accounts of incidents,” Stanley wrote. “Cameras have the potential to be a win-win, helping protect the public against police misconduct, and at the same time helping protect police against false accusations of abuse.”
Washington, D.C.’s Metropolitan Police Department began a six-month trial period of the body cameras on Oct. 1. The half-year, $1 million program equipped more than 150 police officers with cameras attached to either shirts, collars or eyeglass frames.
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press requested records for footage from the first two days of the program, which amounted to 128 videos total, said Katie Townsend, litigation director for the organization. Instead, the police department denied RCFP’s FOIA request for the footage.
“The denial we received for the MPD indicated that because they were unable to make redactions that they believed they needed to make to obscure or otherwise edit out exempt material, they were going to withhold all of the videos in their entirety,” Townsend said.
In an effort to cooperate with the with police, Townsend said RCFP asked for footage that didn’t include active investigations or arrests on a “rolling basis when it was no longer pertinent to the investigation or prosecution.”
“We tried to be cooperative, so we were certainly disappointed that we ended up being shut out entirely,” she said.
The RCFP has filed an administrative appeal with the police department in hopes that the mayor’s office will address their concerns with the denial.
“As we pointed out in our appeal, the purpose of using body cams is for transparency and accountability,” she said, “and so really honoring and abiding by your obligations under the D.C. FOIA and making these videos public furthers the entire purpose of the body cam program.”
American Civil Liberties Union, body-mounted cameras, California State University, Darren Wilson, Ferguson, Fullerton, Michael Brown, Missouri, news, public records, recent-news, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, reports, St. Louis, University of Kansas, winter 2014-15