Local, state and tribal police officers are deputized as federal agents across the country to join task forces focused on missions such as targeting drug trafficking or violent crime and capturing fugitives. Even if the officers wore cameras as part of their department’s standard operations, they were instructed to take them off when they joined federal task forces.
After an Atlanta police officer working on an FBI fugitive task force fatally shot a man last year, then-Atlanta Police Chief Erika Shields learned that body cameras were prohibited by the feds. When the federal agencies wouldn’t change their rules, Shields and Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms pulled about 25 Atlanta officers from task forces with the DEA, the FBI and the Marshals Service. In St. Paul, Minn., officers were booted from a federal marshals task force after their chief, Todd Axtell, insisted the officers wear cameras.
Faced with more cities considering withdrawing from task forces, the Justice Department met with the Major Cities Chiefs Association last fall and devised a pilot program to allow officers from five police departments to wear their cameras while working with the feds. The program — in Houston, Detroit, Wichita, Salt Lake City and Park City, Utah — lasted from January through August.
“After spending a substantial amount of time examining this issue,” Attorney General William P. Barr said in a statement, “assessing the results of the pilot program, and taking into account the interests and priorities of all the law enforcement agencies involved, I am pleased to announce that the [Justice] department will permit the use of body-worn cameras on our federal task forces in specific circumstances.”
The change is not small. It will affect about 900 federal task forces with approximately 14,000 local, state and tribal officers, Justice Department spokeswoman Kristina Mastropasqua said. The new policy “is a significant step towards greater transparency,” Mastropasqua said.
“Transparency is good for all forms of law enforcement,” Axtell said Thursday, “whether you’re local, state or federal. We should all be held to the same standards, and I am grateful to hear that this policy has been made. This will allow our partnerships to continue and flourish moving forward.”
“It’s been a long time coming,” said Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo, head of the Major Cities Chiefs Association. “I’m grateful that Attorney General Barr made it a priority and within six months of taking over the Justice Department he started working with us to make it happen.”
Shields, who stepped down as Atlanta’s police chief in June, declined to comment.
The Justice Department issued specific guidelines for when the cameras may be used, restricting them to arrest operations and search warrant executions. The officers may not record undercover personnel, informants, witness interviews or record during investigations related to public corruption or national security. The recordings made by local officers become federal property but may be used by local police for their internal investigations, such as officer-involved shootings, the guidelines state. Local police may not release any such footage publicly without written permission from the Justice Department.
Justice Department officers and agents will continue their policy of not wearing body cameras or using in-car cameras. A bill to require federal agencies to use such cameras, sponsored by Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) after the 2017 killing of Bijan Ghaisar by two U.S. Park Police officers, was incorporated into the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which passed the House in June but has not moved in the Senate.
“I’m glad to see that the Justice Department has reversed course,” Beyer said Thursday in an emailed statement, “after a year and a half of pursuing a backwards policy of discouraging local law enforcement from using body cameras. This is a step in the right direction, but it should never have been necessary and cost crucial time. Every federal officer should use body-worn cameras, and the Administration must embrace forward-thinking reforms that improve transparency and accountability of policing.”
Mastropasqua said the Justice Department would “continue to assess the use of body-worn cameras in federal law enforcement operations.”
The Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association has said it is not opposed to body cameras if they are fully funded and properly regulated. In testimony before Congress last month, the association’s president, Larry J. Cosme, said that “as a general rule, it is our view that evidence has shown that body-worn cameras can be an effective tool and beneficial at protecting both law enforcement officers and the individuals they interact with.” But he noted the need for smart policies on the use and storage of footage, proper training of officers, public release of footage and a managing of the public’s expectations about what body cameras will and won’t show.
Acevedo said the feds will wear cameras someday. “That ship has sailed,” he said. “It’s just a matter of time before we’re all wearing them. Taxpayers have spent millions of dollars on it, and it not only holds police accountable, it holds suspects accountable. It helps the good cops and shows we’re doing the right thing.”