Police departments and communities are looking to body cameras to curb police misconduct and rebuild community trust. But whether that technology, which can record what the police see, will be used to benefit the public remains to be seen.
The District has become a microcosm of the debate over the use of body cameras. As the Metropolitan Police Department’s experiment with them has passed the six-month mark, questions about who should have access to the video are sparking disagreement, as well as unexpected alliances among civil liberties groups, police unions, defense lawyers, prosecutors and victims’ advocates. Clashes have erupted over the proper balance of transparency, privacy and law enforcement. We want to ensure the cameras’ core purposes — transparency and accountability — are not destroyed as these issues are resolved.
But the department has refused Freedom of Information Act requests from the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press for body camera videos, primarily citing the privacy of people captured in the footage. Department officials say they don’t have the ability to redact the videos, and Lanier says it’s too burdensome to try.
In the District, it turns out that record is mostly for the police department’s own benefit.
To add fuel to the fire, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) has proposed legislation to exempt body camera videos from disclosure under FOIA altogether. Thankfully, at least one council member opposes the measure. But elsewhere, more than a dozen state legislatures have introduced measures to withhold some or all body camera videos from disclosure under public records laws.
If passed, these laws could destroy the very reason for using this technology. Keeping the videos hidden will only heighten mistrust and spur conspiracy theories about what they really show.
No one disagrees that deeply private situations may be captured in the videos or that such moments may need to be protected. But there are robust privacy protections in almost every state’s (and the District’s) public records laws that can more than adequately protect individuals’ privacy, as they have in printed and electronic public records for decades.
In the District, the police can withhold personal information when public disclosure would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of privacy. Videos could be edited to blur faces, obscure identifying images and mute or otherwise protect voices.
Lanier argues that the burden of redacting videos is too high. She says it would take a century and a half to edit the 5,000 hours already recorded. But her estimate is based on beta software being developed to automate the redaction process. Third-party video editors using existing software can review and redact videos in a fraction of that time. Based on estimates set by a Baltimore working group, one company can redact 15 minutes of body camera video in about an hour for $50.
That’s a small price to pay for helping ensure that the public trusts its police department.
Earlier this month, the Justice Department launched a $20 million project to equip police officers across the nation with body cameras. Attorney General Loretta Lynch said that she hopes they will increase transparency and promote accountability.
Some police departments are making an effort to do just that. The Seattle Police Department, which proactively posts some blurred body camera video, recently held a public “hackathon” to gather ideas from civilians about how to best edit the videos. As these tools are refined, the Seattle police have offered to make them available free to other police departments.
It’s refreshing to see police working with the community for the benefit of both.
Let’s not forget that in addition to misconduct, body cameras can showcase officers’ acts of heroism and bravery, or help explain why an officer’s action was reasonable. Many police officers, including Delroy Burton, chairman of the D.C. police union, want body camera videos to be publicly available.
Even if it takes time and money to process these videos, isn’t it worth it? The goal of body cameras is to build trust between communities and the public servants sworn to protect them. If the public can’t see what the police are doing, that will never happen.
The writers are, respectively, Jack Nelson-Dow Jones Foundation legal fellow and litigation director with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
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