The tragic deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. , and Freddie Gray in Baltimore demonstrate the need for law enforcement agencies to implement secure, body-worn cameras. While no system is perfect, body-worn cameras help promote trust, help keep police officers and the public safe and foster greater transparency and accountability on behalf of the judicial system.
D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), the D.C. Council and the Metropolitan Police Department are working together to fully deploy body-worn cameras. In October 2014, the department began a pilot body-worn camera program. Bowser included $5.1 million in her proposed fiscal 2016 budget to outfit all District officers with body-worn cameras.
The police department’s Body-Worn Camera Program Regulations provide guidance on the program. Bowser asked the council for legislation to authorize widespread deployment and create public-access rules. The bill was amended by the council’s Judiciary Committee to further expand the public’s ability to view the recordings. The D.C. Council unanimously approved the amendment Dec. 1.
In a welcome development, balancing privacy and open access was discussed at the council’s recent police body-worn camera hearing. While the police department’s body-worn camera program and the council’s legislation reference data protection, neither mandates a best-practice standard for security. Absent this crucial requirement, the public cannot be assured that the recordings are properly protected.
It is possible to hack body-worn camera systems to create a threat to public safety. Personal information — especially video recordings of those who have been victims of domestic violence, sexual assault or child abuse — should be afforded the strongest security protections.
The International Association of Chiefs of Police recommends that “law enforcement agencies should generally store all collected data at the highest level of security, which will often be the FBI CJIS standard.” Since body-worn camera footage may contain the most sensitive information recorded, the Metropolitan Police Department should be required to implement the strongest security protocols.
The FBI’s widely accepted and trusted Criminal Justice Information Services Division Security Policy is the strongest set of security protocols available to protect sensitive law enforcement information. The CJIS security policy requires practices such as routine audits and background checks for those working with the data. Implementing the highest data security protections when deploying body-worn cameras in the District will reduce the likelihood that the program’s integrity will be questioned.
For example, what happens when an investigation and prosecution involve the Metropolitan Police Department and other law enforcement agencies? If the department’s protocols are vulnerable to mishandling, hacking or theft, there will be serious legal and financial repercussions and chain-of-custody questions in the courtroom. Without the necessary security protections, jurors, prosecutors, police officers and the general public may not trust the recordings.
I applaud the work on police body-worn cameras, but if our community is to be held up as a model for the country, more attention must be paid to ensuring that the highest security and privacy protocols are required under the law. Because these recordings will help prosecute or exonerate our neighbors, it is imperative that the strongest safeguards available are in place to protect the integrity of the judicial system.
With the council scheduled to give final approval to body-worn camera legislation this month, I urge it to first amend the bill to require the use of best-practice security standards to ensure that the video recordings are properly protected.
The writer is a lawyer.