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Sunshine Week: Michigan ACLU releases model bodycam policy

Mar 15, 2016

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As more of the nation’s attention is focused on police shootings, more police departments are putting body-worn cameras on their officers.

The idea is to improve relations and trust between police and the community.

But bodycams raise some sticky questions about balancing transparency and respecting privacy.

Here in Michigan, the American Civil Liberties Union has been asked to analyze the privacy issues surrounding bodycams and develop model policy to help address some of these concerns.

Rodd Monts is with the Michigan ACLU. He tells us that while the ACLU doesn’t know exactly how many body cameras are in use by officers in Michigan and across the country, their use has greatly increased in the last few years.

Monts tells us the ACLU generally considers bodycams to be a win-win solution for both law enforcement and civilians.

“It provides that level of accountability and monitoring when it comes to police/civilian interactions, and on the police’s end, it provides them an opportunity to collect information on those interactions in cases where they may be alleged to have engaged in misconduct and have that not be the case,” he says.

While bodycams offer great promise in the form of transparency and accountability, Monts tells us they do raise some concerns.

“Technology usually outpaces policy,” he says. “The cameras are a great device, but without appropriate policy and practice there is the specter of potential misuse and or abuse.”

"The cameras are a great device, but without appropriate policy and practice there is the specter of potential misuse and or abuse."

The ACLU is calling for policies that clearly indicate when officers should be using the cameras, how the collected data is stored, how officers can effectively communicate to individuals they encounter that they are being recorded, “particularly when it comes to an officer entering a private home as opposed to being involved in a police chase,” Monts says.

When it comes to monitoring potential police misconduct, Monts says bodycams are only part of the equation, pointing to other factors including officer training, implicit bias and cultural competency.

Monts tells us there are a few pieces of legislation that have been introduced in Lansing that would provide some oversight regarding the cameras’ use and data collection. Among them is House Bill 4234, which would exempt police audio or video recordings taken in private places from being accessible under the Freedom of Information Act.

In its model policy, the ACLU recommends that bodycam footage be kept for six months.

Monts explains that many people who support this technology want to hold on to that footage in perpetuity, “even if that footage that has no material value or evidentiary value,” a policy that the ACLU rejects due to concerns of both privacy and practicality.

“We have a problem with mass surveillance,” Monts says. “We don’t have a problem with capturing video and reviewing that video after a shift is concluded, deleting the video that has no value, and retaining any video of criminal activity for as long as it is needed as evidence, but other than that we’re not in support of maintaining data for undetermined periods of time.”

Indefinite data storage has also gotten some pushback from some police agencies complaining of the costs associated with storing a lot of data for a long time.

“If you are determined to maintain only that data that could be potential evidence, then you’re going to have a lower cost of data storage,” Monts says.

Monts tells us the ACLU believes that bodycam footage should be available under FOIA, but recognizes that “the issue is complicated,” especially with regard to recording in private residences.

Rodd Monts tells us more about the ACLU’s stance on bodycams and recommendations for their use in our conversation above.