Police body cameras are a device worn by law enforcement that allow the police to gather evidence at a crime scene and, probably more importantly, to record the interactions between law enforcement and the public.
The Brennan Center for Justice has listed a list of nine types of situations when police body cameras should be required to record. They are:
- All calls for service and while en-route to emergency calls.
- Pedestrian stops, including consensual encounters and “Terry Stops” (a brief detention of a person by police on reasonable suspicion of involvement in criminal activity).
- Traffic stops.
- Foot and vehicle pursuits.
- Consensual or warrantless searches.
- Executing search warrants.
- Arrests and detentions.
- Transports (driving with a suspect or prisoner);
- Other adversarial encounters or situations where criminal activity is likely to be recorded.
Body Camera at Center of Political Feud in Rockport, TX
A police body camera video is at the center of a bitter political feud between the Aransas County District Attorney’s Office and the Rockport (Texas) Police Department.
On August 15, 2017, the DA’s Office issued a press release announcing it would no longer accept cases from the police department. DA Kristen Barnebey has been critical of the police department’s handling of offense reports, especially those submitted to her office by Officer Chad Brooks. The DA has accused the officer of lying, withholding evidence, and padding his offense reports with firsthand biased information about suspects he has arrested or otherwise had encounters with.
Officer Brooks had a scheduled meeting with one of Barnebey’s assistants to discuss the manner about the reports he submits to the DA’s office. Officer Brooks wore his body camera to that meeting and recorded the 17-minute session. Mayor C.J. Wax said this unofficial use of Brooks’ body camera was “at least unethical.”
Rockport Police Chief Tim Jayroe has disciplined Officer Brooks for his misuse of the police issued body camera but otherwise has defended the officer’s offense reports and the overall investigatory conduct of his department.
Baltimore PD Rocked by Body Camera Scandals Documenting Misconduct
In Maryland, the Baltimore Police Department has been rocked by a series of police body camera scandals—two incidents involved the police planting evidence that were inadvertently recorded and a third involved an officer recording the reenactment of discovered evidence because when he initially discovered the evidence his camera was not recording. These scandals have resulted in more than 100 cases handled by these officers being dismissed by the District Attorney’s office. Hundreds of more cases involving these same officers is currently under review.
Uses of Body Cameras
Criminal justice reform advocates argue body cameras should be used to provide the public with transparency about police interactions with the general community. Law enforcement has found body cameras can also be extremely useful in documenting arrests and in evidence gathering. The fact that body cameras have become a tool of police corruption strongly indicates there is a Grand Canyon divide between the police and the community they serve.
Instruments of Injustice
The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and Upturn (“Leadership Conference”) reported last year that 43 of the nation’s 68 major police departments had body camera programs in place. The Leadership Conference pointed out that a “broad coalition” of civil, privacy and media rights groups have expressed concerns that “without carefully crafted policy safeguards, there is a real risk that these new devices could become instruments of injustice, rather than tools for accountability.”
This concern is evidenced by the Baltimore police officers—planting or staging evidence while the camera is off and turning it back on upon discovering the planted evidence to enhance the legitimacy of the bust—and the Rockport police officer using his body camera for personal use to record a private meeting with another official who was not aware that she was being recorded.
The Rockport police incident underscores the issue of who should control the footage of the body camera. NPR reported this past May that the company, Axon, which “provides secure cloud storage” for police departments, has received more than 4 million hours of video uploads from the police departments it represents. This video storage is controlled exclusively by the law enforcement agencies that produced it.
Alex Vitale, director of the Policing and Social Justice Project at Brooklyn College, told NPR that police generated videos should not be controlled by law enforcement. The exclusive control of these videos by law enforcement undermines the “accountability” goal they’re supposed to provide. “If it’s really a tool for accountability, perhaps the footage should be under the control of an independent entity,” Vitale told NPR.
Public Concerned About Use of Cameras
NPR found there is an increasing concern in many communities that body cameras are “for” the police, not the public. This concern is fed by the practice of too many police departments not adhering to consistent use policies and not releasing the videos to the public.
States Remove Police Videos from Public Disclosure, Open Records
In fact, some states have enacted laws to exclude these videos from public disclosure. Just last year the North Carolina enacted a law, signed by the governor, that excludes police body camera footage, as well as police dash cam footage, from disclosure under that state’s open records law. Three other states—Louisiana, New Hampshire and Minnesota—had joined the non-disclosure bandwagon like North Carolina.
The State of Kansas classifies body camera video as “criminal investigation documents” that are available to the public only after an investigation is closed.
A 2014 report by the Police Executive Research Forum found that “body-worn camera video footage should be made available to the public upon request not only because the videos are public records but also because doing so enables police departments to demonstrate transparency and openness in their interactions with members of the community.”
Fox Guarding the Henhouse
Chad Marlow, an ACLU policy counsel, put it more succinctly, saying: “That’s little bit like the fox guarding the henhouse” when the police have exclusive control over the videos.
Texas’s Police Body Worn Camera legislation, enacted in 2015 and codified at in the state’s Occupations Code § 1701.655 establishes the requirements law enforcement agencies should include in the body camera program, if departments choose to participate in body camera funding program. These requirements, which became effective September 1, 2016, are:
- Guidelines for when a peace officer should activate a camera or discontinue a recording currently in progress, considering the need for privacy in certain situations and at certain locations;
- Provisions relating to data retention, including a provision requiring the retention of video for a minimum period of 90 days;
- Provisions relating to storage of video and audio, creation of backup copies of the video and audio, and maintenance of data security.
- Guidelines for public access, through open records requests, to recordings that are public information;
- Provisions entitling an officer to access any recording of an incident involving the officer before the officer is required to make a statement about the incident;
- Procedures for supervisory or internal review; and
- The handling and documenting of equipment and malfunctions of equipment.
Significantly, this policy does not require a Texas police officer to keep a body camera activated for the entire period of the officer’s shift; however, it does require that the camera be activated only for a law enforcement purpose—a provision that Officer Chad Brooks violated.
Police Departments Stand by Officers
We don’t know who is right or wrong in the current feud between the Aransas County District Attorney’s Office and the Rockport Police Department. Officer Brooks violated departmental policy and was disciplined. The Rockport Police Department, however, is standing by its officers in the way they conduct criminal investigations, including the way they employ their body cameras. The Baltimore Police Department is taking the same position with its officers.
While the Baltimore district attorney is dismissing scores of current charges and reviewing hundreds of other cases for police impropriety, the Aransas County District Attorney is no longer accepting any cases from the Rockport police until they receive new training about how to handle evidence in criminal cases.
While the public has serious and legitimate concerns about public protection as these law enforcement agencies feud, we find it encouraging that some prosecutors are standing up against police misconduct. We have no truck for police misconduct just as we have no truck with prosecutorial misconduct. But we understand that prosecutorial misconduct is too many times influenced in the law enforcement investigatory process because of police misconduct.
Body cameras were designed to document investigations and arrests, while curtailing police misconduct. Unfortunately, corrupt officers have created new ways to legitimize their misconduct.
And that is why, we believe, an increasing number of states are trying to conceal body camera footage from the public. It is far past time for states to require mandatory body cameras on all law enforcement officers and design strict compliance programs to ensure consistent use, retention and disclosure.