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The downsides of police body cameras

Dec 9, 2014

Body-worn cameras could become more common, but what are the risks?
Credit User: West Midlands Police / Wikimedia Commons

In the wake of the shooting of Michael Brown in Missouri and the death of Eric Garner in New York, there's been a national and local conversation about body-worn cameras for cops. Here in Michigan, Ann Arbor is one of the more recent communities to bring up this discussion.

The positives of these cameras are obvious: They help the public hold police officers accountable for their actions, supply evidence for potential cases of misconduct, and hopefully help to restore some of the trust in law enforcement. 

In a report by the ACLU, they urge that in order for these cameras to be effective and safe for the public and the officers, policies need to be put in place. 

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.

But what is less often discussed are the potential negatives of these body-worn cameras – the largest of which is privacy. 

The ACLU cautions about the potential invasion of privacy that may occur when police officers wearing body cameras enter people's homes and encounter bystanders, suspects, and victims in a wide variety of potentially vulnerable situations.

What if the camera catches video of domestic violence, assault, or footage involving minors? Which of these videos will be made available to the public under the Freedom of Information Act? And how long will they be retained?

Because the technology is so new, a lot of the answers to those questions are unclear. 

"There's got to be strict rules addressing when the cameras are on, there have to be rules about recording in the home, how long the videos are retained, and there need to be rules about disclosure of the videos to the public," Michael Steinberg of the ACLU explained.

These cameras are intended to keep police officers in check, so the ability for officers to decide what to record might render them useless. If officers can choose which interactions are recorded and which aren't, misconduct will likely not end up in video footage.

But if the cameras are on all the time, that may infringe on the police officer's privacy as well.

"Police officers should not be recorded so that their bosses can listen to their private discussions when they're sitting in the police car, about their lives, and their work with the union," Steinberg said. 

The balance that needs to be struck, according the ACLU, is to make sure that officers cannot manipulate the videos, while ensuring that officers won't be under 24/7 surveillance themselves.

One possibility is that some form of effective automated trigger could be developed that would allow for minimization of recording while capturing any fraught encounters — based, for example, on detection of raised voices, types of movement, etc.

The ACLU is behind the usage of body cameras; however, they hope to encourage people to consider how nuanced their use can be. They urge that cameras need to be instituted along with extremely strict policies that will ensure their effectiveness for the police and the people.

– Paige Pfleger, Michigan Radio Newsroom