New Study Finds US 'Nationwide Failure' Of Body Camera Policies To Protect Civil Rights

Body cameras have been seen as an elegant solution to the complex problem of police brutality, but a new survey of 75 police departments across the US found that the policies governing them have, as a whole, failed to foster transparency, protect privacy or defend civil rights. "Police Body Worn Cameras: A Policy Scorecard", a yearly report released by Upturn and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights this week, found numerous key weaknesses in body cam policies across the US.

Photo: AP

Basing their findings on eight criteria (including "protects footage against tampering" and "addresses personal privacy concerns"), researchers discovered what they describe as a "nationwide failure to protect the civil rights and privacy of communities of color that are over-surveilled and over-policed". Fifty-one per cent of the surveyed police departments made no changes to their body cam policies since last year and seven actually made them worse.

Image: The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and Upturn

The most widespread failure concerns protections against biometric technology. Only seven of the 75 departments specifically prohibit the use of facial recognition with body camera footage, a serious threat to privacy. Face recognition databases are drawn from passport photos and driver's licenses, then cross referenced with criminal databases. If they become part of body camera technology, simply walking past an officer means being checked against a database, even if you aren't suspected of a crime.

Just as troubling, six of the 75 police departments have policies specifically allowing citizens filing police misconduct complaints to review footage. As the purpose of body cameras is accountability and transparency, it's alarming that departments aren't moving to make it easier to access the footage. Amid an ongoing scandal on "faked" body camera footage, Baltimore City officials are pushing for restricted access throughout the state of Maryland. Wisconsin has also moved to make footage more difficult to view.

Finally, in a supplemental report titled "The Illusion of Accuracy", Upturn executive director Harlan Yu details the importance of policies that explicitly prohibit officers from viewing their body camera footage before writing reports. Seventy-five per cent of surveyed departments allow officers to review footage before writing reports, even after use-of-force incidents.

Body camera footage implies an intense struggle.

Price, surveillance footage shows, surrendered immediately.

Yu explained how inadequate policies give officers the opportunity to tailor their statements to their reports instead of giving independent summaries. Yu uses the example of the 2014 arrest of Derrick Price. Officers submitted footage that appeared to show Price resisting arrest, and you can hear the officers shout, "Stop resisting!" Their reports told the same story.

But surveillance footage showed that Price had surrendered, with his hands behind his back, face down on the pavement, before police captured him. He clearly wasn't resisting, but the footage was tailored to the officers' narrative. Four of the officers eventually pleaded guilty to violating Price's civil rights. Yu uses Price's arrest as an example of why we need "clean reporting". Without surveillance footage, the body camera footage would have served as a psuedo-objective witness in favour of the police, when it had actually been manipulated to reflect the story the officers wanted to tell.

The full scorecard breaks down the many failures in protecting civil liberties and constitutional rights across departments.

No one department successfully fulfilled all of the researchers' criteria, but the report does point to a scant few bright spots. Most interesting among them is the Baltimore Police Department, which they say has improved in four policy areas: Personal privacy, officer discretion, face recognition limitations, and public availability of its policy. Dozens of criminal cases were thrown out in Baltimore this year after body cam footage revealed officer misconduct, perhaps indicative of the cameras' potential to catch wrongdoing.

While body cameras can be powerful tools, they need robust, pro-social policies to actually uphold the ideals of transparency and accountability. Otherwise, they will only expand the reach of the already deeply unequal criminal justice system.



    Has this article been written from the perspective of an offender with an agenda?
    Are all police suddenly tarnished as corrupt redneck storm troopers?
    Police are charged with protecting the public and arresting criminals.
    Facial recognition is the future, and anyone who hampers this is just standing in the way of a safer society.
    The reason we don’t need rego stickers on our cars in NSW anymore is because of increased use of ANPR (Automatic Number Plate Recognition). Suddenly people driving unsafe rust bucket jalopies on our roads year after year without registering them and risking other road users and pedestrian lives is coming to an end because police cameras can check plates against wanted lists in real time.
    Facial recognition is the same. It’s not intrusive. Not any more intrusive than a camera without facial recognition. Someone walks past who is wanted for an outstanding crime, the camera vibrates and suddenly that person is arrested and dealt with. Is this not the aim of the police? Is this not what we pay the police a huge chunk of tax payer dollars to achieve? Why have a police force equipped with tools that do not help get criminals off the streets?
    Imagine your new neighbour is a paedophile on the run. Police visit him one night to tell him to turn the music down after a routine noise complaint. Wouldn’t it be nice if while giving him this routine warning they suddenly knew he was wanted for raping three young children and could put him away, an act that protects your kids and others in your street from what may well have been a horrible future fate?

    As for letting police view their own footage before making statements. Again, this article goes way over board. Police statements are a presentation to the court of the evidence they have. Sometimes its based on footage, sometimes its witness statements, sometimes its documents, sometimes its audio and often it’s just their notebook records.
    Police are tasked with presenting a complete picture of all the evidence to the court. You can’t do that without reviewing the evidence. Can this be abused under extreme situations like the example given in the article where for some unknown reason the body cam footage only shows part of the picture, possibly. However the article also states that they came undone by footage from other angles. As more police become equipped with body cams the likelihood of getting isolated footage that can be twisted to an agenda is reduced from bugger all to no chance. There were four cops in the article example, if all four had body cams, imagine the odds of footage from all four cops all being equally able to be skewed to meet a corrupt agenda, not to mention the ever increasing likelihood of separate independent CCTV or witnesses with phones etc.
    The real risk here is how a defence lawyer would capitalise on any slight discrepancies between an officers statement and Body worn footage to discredit the police statement in court if an officer can’t review the footage for accuracy first. Police are just people, under life threatening conditions in fast paced dangerous situations they can and will focus on certain things sometimes to the exclusion of other things. They won’t necessarily come out of every situation with a photographic memory of everything that occurred. They can and should review their footage, or any other evidence to properly present the most accurate account they can to the courts.
    Should there be safe guards to ensure police do not tamper, edit, delete etc the footage? Absolutely, as is the case with any exhibit. Proper auditable safeguards should be in place to guarantee the integrity of the exhibit. This should not be a hugely difficult thing to facility with the right kind of hardware/software/network setup.
    Should offenders get to view the footage? Absolutely, this should in many cases facilitate an early guilty plea and save court time and tax payer money when offenders realise they really did do those naughty things and it was all captured on camera. However, it should be controlled. Footage should be viewed at a police station or other third-party facility, not simply handed over to offenders to be edited and uploaded to YouTube. Access should also be limited to the offender involved, their legal counsel or an authorised oversight body. This footage is not reality television for public consumption. It can depict scenes that are often very private and sensitive. It should not be available to just anyone. Privacy reasons aside there are also serious legal aspects relating to the prejudicial pre-release of footage impeding future legal proceedings if footage is released prior to pending court proceeding.

    Body Worn Video, if used correctly, can reduce the odds of a rouge cop from misusing their power. It can simultaneously assist the police to be more effective in keeping criminals off the streets and behind bars where they belong. This articles’ greatest misnomer is that it hypothesises that half of this equation is supposedly of benefit, while any aid or derived benefit to police in doing their dangerous work more efficiently or effectively is somehow ‘unfair’.
    The bias here is clear, and Giz has posted several articles on this topic with similar tone.

    Last edited 19/11/17 2:19 pm

    Anyone with any experience with body cameras will understand why this is happening, those who have never used them won't.

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