Some District police officers could start wearing body cameras as soon as Oct. 1 as part of a pilot program that might have all uniformed members of the force recording daily interactions with the public.
Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier has been considering body cameras for the past 18 months. She first publicly introduced the idea in January and has twice discussed the issue at D.C. Council hearings.
The concept has been widely considered but until recently was implemented only in some of the nation’s smaller departments. Locally, police in Laurel, Md., were among the first to wear them. The idea quickly gained national momentum after the fatal shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., on Aug. 9.
On Thursday, the New York Police Department started a camera test program with 60 officers. A federal judge had ordered the nation’s largest police agency to begin using cameras to address concerns over racial profiling during police stops, although officials there said they were acting independently of the ruling.
The Los Angeles Police Department is conducting similar tests with two types of cameras. A department spokesman said Friday that “no decision has been made” on broadening the program.
Use of the cameras is supported by many advocacy groups, which say the devices will improve accountability, and by many police groups, which believe the number of complaints from the public would drop if interactions were captured on video.
Gwendolyn Crump, the chief spokeswoman for the D.C. police department, said Lanier is committed to “developing a comprehensive policy to govern all aspects of the initiative.” The D.C. Office of Police Complaints, an independent review board, also supports police use of body cameras.
Among the issues being worked out is precisely when officers would be required to turn on the cameras — during all interactions with the public or only in instances that could be contentious. The decision will have to balance privacy concerns with the understanding that even routine interactions can quickly turn volatile.
Authorities do not want to make law-abiding people uncomfortable in encounters with the police or have well-meaning officers accused of selective recording. But they do want to record arrests, criminal activity witnessed by officers or officer misconduct.
Police in the District and elsewhere also must decide where to mount the cameras — on the lapel, on the cap or on the front of the shirt — and for how long and under what circumstances recordings will be kept.
Few studies have been conducted on the impact of police officers wearing cameras. One study involved the 115-member force in Rialto, Calif. Every officer on the force wore a camera for one year starting in February 2012. The study, conducted by the nonprofit Police Foundation, found that the use of force by officers and complaints by citizens declined during the trial period, indicative, the study’s authors concluded, of people on both sides of the badge adjusting their behavior for the cameras.
The decision to move forward with the program in the District came after a meeting Wednesday involving police, lawyers and advocacy groups. Among the participants was Monica Hopkins-Maxwell, executive director of the Washington chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. She confirmed a fall rollout date for the test program. The fall launch date was first reported by the Washington Times.
Hopkins-Maxwell said the police department is drafting protocols — called general orders — to guide officers in using the cameras.
The ACLU chapter was instrumental in the development of rules by D.C. police to protect citizens who record police officers performing actions in public. The group supports police also making recordings.
The ACLU director said officials are working through a variety of questions, including under what circumstances people should be told that they are being recorded.
Hopkins-Maxwell said the department also must ensure that officers turn on the cameras during enforcement actions — particularly those that lead to arrest, detention and use of force — and keep the cameras on for the duration of such incidents. She said the ACLU believes that officers who do not record in such circumstances or destroy recordings and cannot present sound reasons for their actions should be disciplined.
Concerning when and for how long recordings should be kept, Hopkins-Maxwell said recordings of police use of force, arrests and interactions that lead to complaints by citizens should be retained. A person involved in an incident with the police should be able to request that a recording be preserved, she said.
There is still discussion about when cameras should be turned on. Police must decide whether cameras should be turned off when officers engage in casual banter with citizens. That issue was discussed during a town hall meeting among police officials organized last year by the Police Executive Research Forum. Some worried that cameras could discourage the kind of communication between officers and citizens that departments encourage under the community policing model.
Delroy Burton, chairman of the D.C. police union, said all citizen interactions with police should be recorded, with exceptions carved out for personal discussions and conversations with prosecutors and informants. He said that when an officer does not turn on the camera, “it lends itself to the accusation of selective recording — that the officer is unilaterally selecting what to record and what not to record.”
Burton said the union supports the cameras as a tool to help officers avoid frivolous accusations.
“Complaints will go down significantly,” he said.
Burton addressed the question of mounting cameras on officers’ caps, lapels or chests. He said the lapel cameras, while giving the best view, tend to get knocked off in physical altercations. The chest mount is the most stable but might lack a full perspective, he said, adding that D.C. officers who volunteer will try a variety of camera placements.