Police body cameras spur privacy debate


Laurel Police Department Officer Marcus Currie picks up his body camera gear before the start of his shift on Oct. 15 in Laurel, Md. (Mark Gail/The Washington Post)
November 10, 2013

The woman says she doesn’t know why she’s being pulled over, but it’s obvious: she’s driving on the wrong side of the road. And when a police officer asks the woman to get out of the car, she rams ahead before crashing into a pole and taking off on foot. She’s stopped with a stun gun and handcuffed.

You can watch the whole thing on YouTube, thanks to the Laurel Police Department’s decision to outfit its officers with what the police call “lipstick cameras.”

Enclosed in a slim piece of black plastic, the recorder attaches to a pair of sunglasses or a headband. The city started using the device six months ago. Since then, Chief Rich McLaughlin says, complaints against officers have gone down and so has the use of police force.

“It keeps everybody in check, on both sides,” he said.

Although dashboard cameras in police cruisers are ubiquitous, they provide a limited vantage point and capture mostly traffic stops. On-body cameras that take in everything an officer sees have started to gain traction nationwide; one recently captured the police shooting of a former New York Giants player in Daytona Beach, Fla. Laurel is one of the first departments in the Washington region to adopt them, along with Cheverly and New Carrollton. Hyattsville and the University of Maryland plan to start using them soon.

Police say the videos can provide valuable evidence in court and a clear record of the actions of officers. But questions remain about use of the cameras — precisely when they should be turned on and off — and what becomes of the countless hours of video footage. Some officials also worry that the cameras will discourage some people from approaching officers with tips or concerns.

“This is a discussion that’s bigger than just whether cameras work or not,” said Baltimore City Fraternal Order of Police President Bob Cherry. Next, he suggested, could come cameras on public school teachers and medical professionals. “How far do we want to go as a society, in terms of recording everything?”

The American Civil Liberties Union, which generally is wary of surveillance, recently expressed support for the cameras. But the organization acknowledges the privacy concerns of the police and the public, and its support comes with conditions.

“I absolutely know this tool will transform policing,” Scott Greenwood, a police accountability attorney and general counsel for the ACLU, said in an interview. “It’s an unalloyed good, provided that policies are in place that mandate the use of devices rather than leaving it up to the discretion of the officers.”

The ACLU calls for consent from a filmed citizen when releasing videos — a policy that could have barred Laurel’s car chase from YouTube — and redaction where feasible. Body camera makers are only just starting to catch up with that demand.

The video is “really helpful, but it also raises concerns,” said police Sgt. Rob Drager of Albuquerque, one of the first departments to use the body cameras. Under state information request laws, he said, his department once released a tape to a local news station that included unedited video of officers responding as a child was being strangled.

“We encounter people on the worst day of their lives, and now that’s public record, that’s out there,” he said.

There are also questions about what ultimately happens to the video — even scenes of mundane interaction between police and citizens.

“Who owns the data?” asked Steven Edwards, a senior policy adviser at the Justice Department, during a recent conference on body cameras organized by the Police Executive Research Forum, a national membershipgroup. “Five years from now, how will this data be used?”

In New York, a judge has ordered some police to wear cameras as part of the ruling on the city’s “stop and frisk” policy. Los Angeles has decided to use the cameras — if the city can pay for them. D.C. police spokeswoman Gwendolyn Crump said city officers don’t wear cameras but “technology is constantly evolving and we will keep the possibility open.”

More than 100 small police departments in Virginia, including the cities of Fairfax and Falls Church, have been given body cameras by VML Insurance Programs.

But Lt. John Bisek of the Manassas Police Department said those cameras were more of a conversation-starter than a solution. “The quality isn’t there,” he said. More expensive cameras have better security measures to prevent tampering and require less upkeep, he said, but Manassas doesn’t have the funding.

Most of the cameras cost hundreds of dollars; data storage is an added cost. Laurel uses Taser, which sells a high-end camera and data system..

When they were first told they had to film every encounter, some officers in Laurel were not thrilled, McLaughlin said. But now they come to him asking for the cameras. He just ordered a new batch, and now nearly all 70 officers have them.

Officers from nearby cities “ask, ‘Oh, how do you like Big Brother?’” said Officer Matt Jordan. “But I don’t have a problem with it. I like it.”

The camera helped clear him after a citizen complaint, Jordan said. Once, it defused a confrontation outside a bar: “As soon as they saw the cameras, they left.” In court cases, they’ve been used to secure a drug-related guilty plea and prove that an officer was shoved.

A 12-month Police Foundation experiment in Rialto, Calif., found similar results, according to a report from the city’s police chief. Officer force was used 2.5 times more when officers were not wearing cameras. There were 28 citizen complaints the year before; during the experiment, there were three.

Unlike the District and Virginia, in Maryland taping a private conversation requires the consent of both parties. But state courts have concluded that public stops are not private. Laurel police only offer to turn the camera off when they go into a home; they also turn them off in hospitals.

“I think everyone’s sort of waiting to see how the courts going to accept some of these things,” said Cheverly Police Chief Joseph Frohlich. “I don’t think anyone knows what the limits are.” His officers also turn cameras off in private contexts.

Laurel officers can refer to the videos — automatically downloaded to a smartphone app — to write reports during each shift. At the end of the day, the cameras go into a docking station and the clips are automatically transferred to a data-storage Web site.

Unless the police mark a recording as evidence, it’s destroyed in 180 days. Officers can also ask for a copy to be burned onto a CD for use in court. Otherwise, they can’t touch them.

At the recent law enforcement conference, several chiefs said that in a world where people regularly use cellphones to film officers and post the choppy clips online, police need to be able to produce their own video.

“Everybody’s filming everybody,” said Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey, who led D.C. police from 1998 to 2006. “It’s the reality of the world we’re in; we can’t ignore it. We’ve just got to figure out a way to do it in a constitutional fashion.”

Rachel Weiner covers cops and courts in Arlington and Alexandria.
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