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Here’s why cops should be required to wear a lapel camera while on duty

(Photo by Carl Wycoff)

Police officers in Rialto, Calif., carry cameras to record their every action while on duty. The city says the program has reduced complaints against police officers by 88 percent during the first year.

The idea is sparking debate across the country. On Wednesday, the American Civil Liberties Union endorsed the idea. In a short position paper endorsing the idea, it also emphasized the potential for the technology to be misused, and recommended policies to minimize the potential downsides.

"Although we generally take a dim view of the proliferation of surveillance cameras in American life, police on-body cameras are different because of their potential to serve as a check against the abuse of power by police officers," the civil liberties group argues.

Recording the actions of police is not a new idea. Many police cars have "dash cams" to document traffic stops. And a growing number of citizens are using cell phone cameras to document their interactions with cops. But neither technology allows the kind of pervasive recording that could be done by a camera affixed to a police officer's lapel or sunglasses.

Of course, many police officers aren't thrilled at the idea of their every move being recorded. And some people who interact with the police might also regard the cameras as invasive.

So recording every minute of an officer's shift probably isn't practical. But if officers get to choose when to turn on the camera, there's a risk that they'll just turn it off before they do something that could later get them in trouble.

To deal with this problem, the ACLU advocates a "department-wide policy that mandates that police turn on recordings during every interaction with the public." And they think this requirement needs teeth. For example, the courts might have a rule excluding evidence collected by an officer who had his camera turned off.

But the advocacy group does favor some exceptions. For example, they would have the police comply with requests to deactivate their cameras before entering a private residence. Because such a request would typically be caught on camera, they would be easy to verify after the fact.

The ACLU argues that most footage should be deleted quickly — "in weeks not years." Footage that is relevant to an arrest or a citizen complaint would be held for a longer period. Footage would be released to the public if the subject of a video consented to it.

Right now, of course, this is a mostly theoretical concern. Only a few departments are experimenting with the technology, and it remains to be seen if it will be widely adopted.

But given the heated debates over alleged police misconduct in many cities, cop cameras is a policy both sides should be able to get behind. Cameras would allow citizens who are the victims of police misconduct to be able to prove their claims. At the same time, police officers who are unfairly accused of misconduct could prove their innocence.

"When you put a camera on a police officer, they tend to behave a little better, follow the rules a little better," Rialto's police chief William A. Farrar recently told the New York Times. "And if a citizen knows the officer is wearing a camera, chances are the citizen will behave a little better."

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Brian Fung · October 10, 2013

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