Study Raises Questions about Police Body Cameras
The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and Upturn released a scorecard that evaluates the civil rights safeguards of police body-worn camera programs in 50 U.S. cities. It shows a nationwide failure to protect the civil rights and privacy of surveilled communities. In November 2015, these organizations released an initial scorecard evaluating 25 programs. This new edition updates the policies of those original police departments that have changed their policies and adds 25 more, including the nation’s largest police departments with body-worn camera programs, programs that have received significant funding from the Department of Justice, and programs in cities that have been under scrutiny due to high profile incidents of police violence.
Departments in this edition of the scorecard include: Albuquerque, Aurora (Colo.), Austin, Baltimore, Baltimore County, Baton Rouge, Boston, Charlotte-Mecklenburg, Chicago, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Dallas, Denver, Detroit, Fairfax County (Va.), Fayetteville, Ferguson, Fort Worth, Fresno, Houston, Las Vegas, Louisville, Los Angeles, Memphis, Mesa, Miami, Miami-Dade County, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Montgomery County (Md.), New Orleans, New York, Oakland, Oklahoma City, Omaha, Parker (Colo.), Philadelphia, Phoenix, Pittsburgh (Penn.), Rochester (N.Y.), Salt Lake City, San Antonio, San Diego, San Francisco, San Jose, Seattle, St. Louis, Tampa, Tucson, and Washington, D.C.
The scorecard uses eight criteria derived from the Civil Rights Principles on Body-Worn Cameras signed by a broad coalition of civil rights, privacy, and media rights groups in May 2015. The scorecard also highlights notable policies in each of these categories that, of those evaluated, best protect the civil rights of individuals. It evaluates whether each department:
- Makes its policy publicly and readily available;
- Limits officer discretion on when to record;
- Addresses personal privacy concerns;
- Prohibits officer pre-report viewing;
- Limits retention of footage;
- Protects footage against tampering and misuse;
- Makes footage available to individuals filing complaints; and
- Limits the use of biometric technologies.
- No department fully met the criteria for all eight categories and only 13 departments were able to fulfill the criteria in more than two categories. Ferguson and Fresno failed on every measure.
- In a concerning nationwide trend, none of the department policies we analyzed have a blanket limitation on officer review of footage before filing an initial written incident report. However, six department policies have partial prohibitions in place for certain critical incidents like officer shootings. This is a major accountability problem with all body camera programs as it’s vital to preserve the officer’s recollection and the body-camera footage as independent records. When officers view camera footage before filing their reports, there’s a real danger of reports reflecting only what cameras happened to record, rather than what the officer actually experienced.
- Shamefully, three major departments – Aurora (Colo.), Detroit and Pittsburgh – appear to have cameras on the ground but have not released their policies to the public. Residents of these cities should be very concerned about the lack of transparency and accountability on how these cameras are used. These police departments are enhancing surveillance of innocent people throughout their cities with no accountability for how the footage is used, when the cameras must be turned off or on, if they’re videotaping victims during incredibly personal and sensitive moments, or what, if any, consequences there would be for officers using their cameras inappropriately.
- Even when departments have camera programs, nearly half (24 of 50) don’t make them easily and publicly available on their department websites, which hinders robust public debate about how body cameras should be used.
- Departments are establishing explicit procedures that allow recorded individuals, like those seeking to file a police misconduct complaint, to view the footage of their own incidents. Four departments we analyzed – Cincinnati, Chicago, Parker (Colo.) and Washington, D.C. – now appear to provide special access to recorded individuals.
- Due to concerns from civil rights groups about the increased potential for surveillance, leading departments have begun to include limits on their use of biometric technologies like facial recognition. In our initial scorecard release, only Baltimore’s policy addressed facial recognition. Since then, Baltimore County, Boston, Cincinnati, Montgomery County (Md.), and Parker (Colo.) have all followed suit.
“As police departments across the nation begin to equip more officers with body cameras, it is imperative to recognize that cameras are just a tool – not a substitute – for broader reforms of policing practices. Without carefully crafted policy safeguards, these devices could become instruments of injustice rather than tools of accountability,” said Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. “We hope that our scorecard will encourage reform and help departments develop body camera policies that promote accountability and protect the rights of those being recorded.”
“Body cameras carry the promise of officer accountability, but accountability is far from automatic,” said Harlan Yu, principal at Upturn. “Our goal is to help departments improve their policies by bringing attention to areas where policy improvements can be made and highlighting promising policy language from around the country.”