Police Body Cameras, Part II
Do police-worn body cameras violate the privacy of ordinary citizens?
By Cori McGinn
PRIVACY ISSUES CATEGORIES
Privacy Policies Simplified
In 2012, the Rialto California Police Department conducted a study on police worn body cameras and determined that incidents of police brutality dropped by 60% when officers wore body cameras during work. Additionally, citizen complaints filed against officers dropped 88% from the year prior to implementation to the year after implementation. These numbers are directly in line with promoting accountability among officers and citizens alike. However, the issue remains as to whether the potential threat to privacy of an individual outweighs the benefit of keeping detailed documentation of police interactions.
Last time, we presented some of the officer’s privacy rights which are invaded while wearing body cameras on duty. Notably, though, the cameras do not face the officer but rather outward to document from the perspective of the officer. This viewpoint produces more intimate footage of situations than other recording devices currently available to officers because the focal perspective of body cameras allows for capture of clearer aural and visual recordings of civilians.
Previously, police only had the ability to document interactions with tools like ‘dashcams’ and nearby Closed Circuit Surveillance Television (CCTV) cameras. However, these recording technologies are limited because they only provide data from the viewpoint of where the police car faces or where the CCTV camera is hung. In contrast, body cameras present a major advancement in recording technology available to officers because the mobility of body cameras allows officers to record interactions that were previously isolated from the view of recording devices.
The various video recording devices used in the past by police officers to document interactions between themselves and civilians have consistently come under fire for invading privacy rights. The ACLU has expressed concern with recording technologies like ‘dashcams’ due to a lack of uniform usage guidelines. Without specific protocols for officers, privacy issues arise regarding the retention of videos, recording in private homes, and public release of video footage.
If officers are required to record every moment of their time on duty, many sensitive situations and events will be documented and the privacy rights of citizens will be invaded. For example, officers often interact with victims of domestic violence and rape. These types of conversations are sensitive due to the nature of the surrounding circumstances. Particular care needs to be taken during documentation of such private situations because the potential for embarrassment. In the past, civilians have fallen victim to embarrassment or tainted public reputations because videos have been released with no benefit to the public besides the entertainment value. The potential release of body camera footage for entertainment value is disconcerting when the body camera offers insight to officer interaction on a more intimate level.
Another example is that officers often encounter people in areas like private homes and apartments where there is a high expectation of privacy. Areas existing within a sphere of higher expectations of privacy should not be documented automatically. Courts have even held that in situations where people expect a high level of privacy to be maintained, the government does not necessarily reserve the right to invade this expectation.
While the purpose of using body cameras on police forces is to create accountability and collect actual evidence of interactions, protecting the rights and privacy of victims is also imperative
Implementation of body camera programs on police forces shows potential for increased accountability among officers and civilians alike. However, the technology is being adapted without full understanding of the range of threats to the privacy rights of citizens. The intimate recordings produced by body worn cameras and the increased mobility of the devices to see everything an officer sees should be considered as camera programs and more structured usage guidelines are developed.