Let’s Go to the Videotape

by Frank Knaack, ACLU of Virginia Director of Public Policy and Communications

(Photo by Nadine Arroyo Rodriguez-KJZZ)

Holding law enforcement accountable can be difficult.  In many cases, allegations of abuse come down to two competing versions of the event – the officer’s and the alleged victim’s.  Fortunately (hopefully), a neutral arbiter may soon be on the way to your community.  No, we’re not talking about additional judges – we talking instead about police body-mounted cameras (body cams).

Body cams are small cameras worn by officers that record audio and video of the officer’s interaction with the public.  And, if used properly, body cams can be a win-win.  They can both protect the public from police misconduct and protect the police from false allegations of abuse.  For example, last month the Charlottesville Police Department released some shocking statistics.  While African Americans make up only 19.5% of Charlottesville’s population, they made up 70% of those stopped and frisked by the Charlottesville PD in the last 18 months.  Putting aside the serious disproportionally concerns and the need to also collect data on the outcomes of each stop and frisk, had the police been wearing body cams we would have had a neutral third party to help verify the validity of each police action.  Both sides could have gone to the videotape.  In fact, testing the use of these body cams was one of the remedies ordered by the federal judge in NY who found the City’s stop and frisk tactics to be unconstitutional.

Wait, so the ACLU of Virginia is advocating for the increased use of government surveillance?  Yes, but with some serious qualifications.  While body cams have the potential to become a positive accountability mechanism, there are some specific policies that must be in place before these body cams are used, including (click here for a more detailed description of the policies):

  • Police wearing body cams should inform people with whom they are interacting that they are being recorded, especially when entering a home, office, or other private space.  And, residents should be able to request that the body cam be turned off when entering their home, unless it is an emergency situation or the officer has a warrant.
  • The policy should be clear about when the body cams are to be turned on and off, and officers must not have discretion to turn them on and off at will.
  • The policy should be clear about what happens to the video from the body cams, where it is stored, how long it is stored, and who has access to it (including ensuring consent from the individual(s) filmed before the content is made public).
  • The law enforcement agency and public officials outside the agency should review the videos on an ongoing basis to determine whether the videos provide information that suggests that police are acting inappropriately or exhibiting bias. Action should be taken to address issues where they are identified, subject to proper procedural protections for the officers involved.

With these policies in place, police body cams can help (re)build trust between law enforcement and the community, protect police from liability, and provide the public with a tool to assure accountability. Sometimes, government cameras can be a good thing, but only if the right policies are in place to guide their use.

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