Samuel DuBose sounded annoyed.
“What did you pull me over for?” he asked the police officer who stopped him minutes earlier near the University of Cincinnati campus one night last July.
“Again, your front tag,” Raymond Tensing, the University of Cincinnati police officer, said.
After a brief back-and-forth about the driver’s license DuBose could not provide, Tensing put his hand on the door and asked DuBose to unbuckle his seat belt. DuBose protested and turned on the ignition.
“Stop! STOP!” Tensing yelled, pulling out his gun and shoving it through the window. He fired a single shot, killing DuBose, before the vehicle rolled away.
A record of what transpired that night exists because Tensing, who is now facing homicide charges, was wearing a body camera.
But such footage isn’t always available. Police departments often have discretion on whether to use body cameras in the first place and a patchwork of laws regulates the collection and availability of such footage across the country, according to a new Urban Institute report published Thursday.
Most states have no guidelines whatsoever on the use of body cameras.
Just nine have explicit mandates or guidelines on when and where police body cameras should be used, while 15 more and the District of Columbia could join them under proposed or pending legislation, according to the report.
Illinois law mandates that any uniformed officer who uses a body camera must record most law enforcement-related activities, for example. In Oregon, an officer is required to give notice when a conversation is being recorded — as long as doing so does not affect a criminal investigation or endanger the officer.
In Virginia, model policy suggests that officers who use body cameras should turn them on during virtually any public interaction related to their duties so long as it does not affect their safety or that of the public.
But outside of those states and six others, law enforcement agencies and departments often find themselves in a vacuum when it comes to body camera regulation.
“Until a state policy comes into effect, every city or municipality has free rein on how they want to create their own policy,” said Kerry Condon, president of the Anaheim Police Association, who helped create his city’s body camera policy, according to the report. “It’s one of the most important policies that I’ve dealt with in 25 years of law enforcement.”
Fifteen states have created or considered creating some kind of program — a study group or pilot program — to explore the use of body cameras, according to the report.
A dozen states explicitly restrict public access to police body camera footage, while a dozen more are considering limits.
In Texas, body camera footage is exempt from public disclosure unless it is used as evidence in a criminal case. In Connecticut, release of recordings is banned when it involves victims of domestic abuse, suicide, homicide or a fatal accident. Twenty states limit or may limit storage time for such recordings.
Even in states without policies specific to body cameras, the devices could be subject to other public records regulations, the Urban Institute noted.
For example, 41 states and D.C. restrict recording where privacy is expected — in the home, for example. In 13 states, recording is banned without consent from more than one party before recording.
But those broad policies may not be suited to body cameras, some argue.
“Going into a house is one of the most intrusive things government does,” Pittsburgh Police Lt. Ed Trapp, project manager of the department’s body-worn camera program, told the report’s authors. “Why would that be the one time you’d want to turn the cameras off?”
Body camera footage can also fall under broader public records laws.
In 49 states and the District, police have the right, broadly, to restrict access to records if doing so would compromise an active investigation, public safety or national security. (New Hampshire is the exception.)
But those laws vary widely in what they do and don’t allow: Some are so broad that public access to body camera footage is essentially cut off; others are so narrow that advocates worry they put the privacy of people who interact with the police at risk.
“On one hand, it’s important to safeguard the privacy of people captured on camera, including children, witnesses, and bystanders,” writes Nancy G. La Vigne, one of the report’s authors. “On the other hand, the main purpose of body cameras is to enhance transparency.”
In DuBose’s case, the video helped set the record straight.
Tensing initially told investigators that he was being dragged by DuBose’s car when he pulled the trigger, but video of the incident showed otherwise, leading prosecutors to pursue a homicide charge against Tensing.