The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Americans want police to release body-cam footage. But there’s a bigger worry.

Without disclosure requirements, police body cameras might simply expand surveillance without oversight.

Riot police officers watch protesters on April 27 as they demand the release of body-camera video of the fatal shooting of Andrew Brown Jr. in Elizabeth City, N.C. (Joshua Lott/The Washington Post)
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On April 21, one day after a Minneapolis jury convicted former police officer Derek Chauvin of murdering George Floyd, police in Elizabeth City, N.C., shot and killed Andrew Brown Jr. — and so far have declined to release body-cam footage of the incident. But then, it had taken 78 days between Floyd’s death before a British newspaper leaked Minneapolis police body-cam footage. By contrast, just one day after police shot and killed Daunte Wright in Brooklyn Center, Minn. — during the Chauvin trial — that department released the footage to the media.

In other words, how quickly the media and the public get access to recordings of fatal police shootings depends on local police department policies, which differ widely across the United States.

In March, the House of Representatives passed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2021, a sweeping criminal justice reform bill. If passed by the Senate and signed by President Biden, the measure would require federal police to wear body cameras and mandates that the footage be released on request. Further, the bill would promote and fund local police departments’ use of such cameras — but says little about whether state and local police departments must disclose footage of incidents in a timely manner. That matters. There’s no evidence that wearing body cams reduces police brutality. Unless footage is made public, there is limited reason why they would have this effect.

What do Americans think? In new research, we find that across the United States, people are willing to wait until after an internal police investigation — but then they want the footage made public. And more than 30 percent of respondents of color (Black, Latino or Asian American) want the raw footage released immediately.

Read more TMC analysis at our Black Lives Matter classroom topic guide.

What would the Justice in Policing Act do?

The bill passed by the House legislation stipulates not only that federal police must wear body cameras, but also that any footage captured of a specific incident must be released on request. The intention is to make such footage public record.

However, when it comes to state and local police, the bill defers to “open records laws, if any, of the State.” Currently, that means there’s wide variation across states. Connecticut residents can see body-cam footage four days after it’s been recorded. However, a North Carolina resident would need to get a court order to see similar footage. In the Brown shooting, a judge delayed release of the footage until after a state investigation.

We listened to people in highly policed communities. Here's what they said.

So what do Americans think?

We ran nationally representative survey of 4,000 U.S. residents, using 1,000 residents per city in Los Angeles, Seattle and Charlotte and 1,000 residents of the United States at large. The survey firm Lucid recruited respondents from Web panels from Sept. 30 to Oct. 24, 2019. The sample of Americans was meant to reflect the United States on socio-demographic characteristics. The other three samples were not. However, we later calculated weights to better reflect the socio-demographic characteristics of the three cities.

We asked respondents what they thought authorities should do with body-cam footage after a police-involved shooting: release raw footage; release a narrated version of the footage; release footage after an internal investigation; and do not release the footage at all.

While state and local policies varied by location, Americans’ opinions did not. Fully 43.2 percent of White Americans, no matter where they lived, said that authorities should release raw footage of the encounter after an internal investigation is over. Among people of color, 37.7 percent wanted to see raw footage released after an internal investigation — but 32.4 percent thought the raw footage of an incident should be released immediately.

The differences by race probably reflect different racial and ethnic groups’ different levels of trust in law enforcement.

We also surveyed more than 700 U.S. local police chiefs. Not surprisingly, only 12.2 percent thought raw footage should be released immediately, while 48.7 percent thought it should be released after an internal investigation.

Derek Chauvin's murder trial put local governments on the stand

Could body-cams have unexpected consequences?

Currently, public discussion of police body-camera footage has focused on whether and when the public has a right to see what happened when a civilian is killed.

But there's another concern. Outfitting over 700,000 local police officers and nearly 100,000 federal law enforcement officers with cameras that are always on will constitute one of the most widespread surveillance programs in U.S. history. If police departments outfit these cameras with facial recognition technology, those can be potent in ways we might not yet be able to anticipate.

The Justice in Policing Act explicitly prohibits federal police from using this software. But as long as local or state police departments do not use federal funds to buy facial recognition software, they can use facial recognition technology so long as it’s permitted by state laws. Some states, including California, have a moratorium on facial recognition — but others have no legislation underway, leaving decisions about whether to use it up to local police, despite evidence that its use concerns members of our community.

Combine those two facts: the possibility of vastly expanded surveillance with the lack of any mandatory disclosure. Could police body cameras lead to unanticipated troubles decades from now?

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Daniel E. Bromberg (@danielebromberg) is an associate professor of public administration and director of academic programs in the Carsey School of Public Policy at the University of New Hampshire.

Étienne Charbonneau is Canada Research Chair in Comparative Public Management and associate professor of public management at the École nationale d’administration publique, Montreal, Quebec, Canada.

Together they are the authors of “Calibrating Public Accountability: The Fragile Relationship between Police Departments and Civilians in an Age of Video Surveillance” (Cambridge University Press, 2021).