City Council to Consider Police Body Cameras: UPDATED

City Council to Consider Police Body Cameras: UPDATED

Body cameras are a tool for police accountability but, if used incorrectly, a threat to civil liberties.

  • Posted on: 14 December 2014
  • By: stannenb

The Cambridge City Council will discuss, Monday, a Policy Order introduced by Councilor Leland Cheung that requests the City Manager "initiate a program to deploy body cameras for police." But Cambridge, a city that has rejected fixed surveillance cameras operated by the Police, should think twice before it deploys a new surveillance technology.

[Update Dec 15, 2014: Councilor Cheung has withdrawn his order, saying that it was erroneously sent to the City Clerk when it was intended only for his staff to research issues, including the ones raised in this article.]

Based on events in Ferguson, Missouri and Staten Island, New York, body cameras have a strong emotional appeal. We don't know exactly what happened when Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown. But, because of a bystander video, we're able to see how a chokehold, employed by a New York City Police Officer killed Eric Garner, as the officer attempted to arrest him for the crime of selling cigarettes. But, despite the video, Garner is still dead, and accountability for that act remains elusive.

The most salient fact of a body camera is that it doesn't actually surveil police officers. Instead, it surveils those they encounter. For police to be able to capture on video anything around them, regardless of whether it's a crime or not, raises serious civil liberty concerns. With facial recognition technology advancing rapidly, body cameras will give police a powerful tool to track the activities of individuals.

The utility of body cameras, as well as their risk as a surveillance technology, depend on how they are deployed. Will the cameras always be on? Can officers turn them on and off at will? How will the video be stored? How long will they be kept? Under what conditions will historical video be accessed for other law enforcement purposes? With what other agencies will the video be shared? When a police officer enters a home, will they be able to record without first getting a warrant?

The American Civil Liberties Union, in response to the deployment of body cameras in New York, suggests a framework in which to consider policy guidance for using the cameras as an accountability tool while maintaining privacy. These include

  • mandatory, enforceable rules about when cameras can be on or off
  • strong disclosure policies about recordings
  • brief retention for recordings except for incidents flagged for police use of force, or an arrest or complaint was made.
  • use of the recordings only for investigations of misconduct or where they include evidence of a crime
  • access to the recording by the subject of the recording
  • strong controls over release of recordings as public records
  • architecture of the systems to ensure the privacy and the integrity of recordings

Unlike other police technology deployed in Cambridge and elsewhere, there are a number of rigorous academic studies underway to determine the efficacy of body cameras, the first of which shows promising results. Use of cameras in Rialto, CA, studied as a randomized controlled trial, showed that officers using cameras were half as likely to use force as those without and complaints about excessive force dropped from 0.7 complaints per 1000 contacts, to 0.07 per 1000 contacts. But the Cambridge City Council, if it is to protect it citizens privacy while it protects it from excessive force, needs to develop a strong civil liberties framework before it requests the City Manager to deploy cameras.

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This work by Saul Tannenbaum is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Photo courtesy West Midlands Police, via Flickr, used with a CC BY-SA 2.0 license.