LAW ENFORCEMENT agencies around the country, spurred by the fatal shooting of an unarmed man running from a police officer in South Carolina, are looking more closely at having officers on patrol wear cameras. That’s an important step toward enhancing accountability, but it comes with a thicket of problems ranging from privacy to administrative concerns.
It may take time to arrive at practicable solutions, and experiments in different states and law enforcement agencies will provide an array of models. What’s important is that police departments and public officials not seize on the potential challenges as a pretext for doing nothing.
In Maryland, legislation spelling out rules for the use of body cameras for state and local police and sheriffs died in Annapolis recently, at least partly because law enforcement officials and advocates for civil liberties could not agree on whether recordings made by body cameras could be made public. Lawmakers, evidently throwing up their hands, punted the issue to a task force.
That’s a shame, because the bill — crafted in large part by negotiations between the ACLU and police chiefs and sheriffs — did manage to lay out sensible ground rules for use of the cameras in a broad range of circumstances. Now those rules will be hammered out from scratch by the state’s Police Training Commission, after it receives recommendations from a task force.
The rules are due Jan. 1, but they will not resolve what appears to be the knottiest dispute — namely, who gets access to body camera recordings.
Civil liberties proponents insist that access to the recordings should be subject to the state’s existing Public Information Act. That law allows any citizen or group, including the news media, to request public documents and other materials, subject mainly to restrictions on unwarranted intrusions on privacy or interference with criminal cases and investigations.
But the chiefs and sheriffs argue that the broad release of body camera recordings raises genuine concerns, which may not be adequately addressed by existing law. They suggest that people might be reluctant to call the police — for instance to a domestic dispute — if they think a video of the encounter might wind up on YouTube.
There are also worries, which may or may not prove legitimate, that police agencies might be saddled with massive expenses and demands on their time if they are forced to vet and redact dozens, hundreds or thousands of hours of body camera footage, deleting before release the faces and voices of juveniles, uninvolved third parties and so forth.
In the weeds of such issues, it’s critical that law enforcement officials keep sight of the basic promise of using body cameras to record encounters between officers and members of the public. They can be a valuable tool in establishing facts, settling disputes and deterring bad conduct by cops and civilians alike. In that way they also may well save lives.