The dispute between federal and local law enforcement has been bubbling for months. In May, Atlanta Police Chief Erika Shields pulled 25 officers out of all the federal task forces there after learning that federal agencies wouldn’t allow her officers to wear cameras, The Washington Post reported. In St. Paul, Minn., Police Chief Todd Axtell told federal agencies in his city late last year that he was requiring officers to wear cameras, and his officers were then removed from their joint task forces.
Local police are deputized as federal agents in hundreds of joint task forces around the country, focused on catching dangerous fugitives, combating violent crime or working high-level drug investigations. But no federal agents wear body cameras, and so there is no policy on who would wear such cameras on a task force operation and how the footage from the cameras would be handled, among other concerns.
“The rationale for this is certainly operational safety and security concerns,” a Justice Department official said in June, “such as protecting sensitive or tactical methods used in arresting violent fugitives or conducting covert investigations. Body cameras are more commonly used in the community policing or traffic stop context. Justice Department law enforcement agencies are also concerned about privacy interests of third parties that may be present at the time a warrant is executed.”
But as other big-city departments such as Houston and Austin threatened to withdraw their officers as well, the Justice Department met with members of the Major Cities Chiefs Association and came up with a plan. Local task-force officers in at least six large and midsize cities will be allowed to use their cameras for a period of 90 days, starting Friday, Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo said, and the program will be reexamined after January.
“I’ve got to give Attorney General [William] Barr a lot of credit,” said Acevedo, the president of the Major Cities Chiefs. “If anybody understands the culture of DOJ, it’s a culture of moving at the pace of an iceberg. But I’m really pleased that the attorney general and his team has come up with a pilot.”
Barr said in a news release that the program “takes into account the interests and priorities of all the law enforcement agencies involved in federal task forces.” The same release also quoted FBI Director Christopher A. Wray saying, “We appreciate the attorney general’s intentions to improve accountability through DOJ’s new body-worn cameras pilot policy.”
Not everyone was immediately enthusiastic. Shields said she had not seen specifics of the program and would not be returning her officers to the federal task forces in Atlanta.
“We are appreciative of the efforts being put forward by the federal government,” Shields said, “and look forward to seeing the particulars of the proposed pilot. To be effective, participating agencies must be allowed to ‘own’ their body-worn camera footage and release it as needed. Having footage and failing to release it brings us no closer to transparency.”
Acevedo said he believed that local police would retain control of any footage recorded by local officers on the task forces. “This is an issue that’s been really important to chiefs across the country,” Acevedo said. “Ultimately it’s a step toward transparency. We know transparency builds trust.”
There is no indication that federal agents will don the cameras. No officers or agents in the Justice Department, whether the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Marshals Service or the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, wear cameras now. A bill to require uniformed officers to have both body-worn and in-car cameras, introduced after the 2017 slaying of unarmed motorist Bijan Ghaisar in Fairfax County, Va., by U.S. Park Police officers, has not had a hearing.
The Justice Department’s announcement Monday specified that the body-worn cameras would be used only while serving in planned arrest operations and during the execution of search warrants.
Acevedo notes that federal agencies use technology in their cases all the time. “The DEA wires the hell out of warehouses” before crucial events, Acevedo said. “They’ve got cameras everywhere, audio everywhere. They keep an eye on the crooks. They do it for the crooks but don’t want body-worn cameras to show the actions of police officers. I’m sure we’ll end up with a policy that makes sense and takes into consideration all of the appropriate concerns of all the stakeholders.”