Who Will They Serve? Warnings Mount That Body Cameras Could Do More Harm Than Good
Though use of body cameras for the nation’s police officers has been put forth as a key reform that could increase accountability for law enforcement agencies and help curb episodes of police brutality, a new policy framework released by the ACLU on Thursday warns that without proper implementation the widespread deployment of such devices could actually do more than good for the people and communities most often targeted by aggressive forms of policing.
The recommendations by the prominent civil liberties group come in the form of “model legislation” that could be adopted by local or state governments or police departments themselves.
“If police officers are given discretion as to when to turn on and off their cameras and key moments go uncaptured when violence erupts, they will cause harm. If video footage is captured but state laws or law enforcement policies prohibit the public from viewing it, they will cause harm. And if body camera videos are released en masse, resulting in the widespread violation of American’s privacy with no public benefit — except perhaps to fans of TMZ and COPS-style reality shows — they will cause harm.” —Chad Marlow, ACLU”Policymakers nationwide have been asking for a plug-and-play model policy that shows them how to best balance the promotion of police accountability with the protection of privacy,” said Chad Marlow, an advocacy and policy counselor for the group. “This is precisely what the ACLU is offering them today.”
In the wake of high-profile killings of unarmed individuals like black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri last year and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement which seeks to end impunity for officers who engage in excessively violent—and too often deadly—uses of force, the idea that wider availability of body cameras for officers was a solid policy idea garnered national support. However—and though it supports the increased use of such devices in part—the ACLU warns that a number of possible negative consequences of equipping large numbers of government officials, especially police officers, with body cameras should not be overlooked.
With a focus on privacy issues and the possible misuse of the cameras by officers and the departments they work for, the ACLU model bill addresses a series of concerns and offers policies designed to make sure the devices actually serve the communities in which they are used and not simply the police being asked to wear them.
According to the ACLU, the encroachment of an ever-expanding surveillance state should not be forgotten, even as the nation takes seriously the plight of those who suffer most at the hands of police violence. As Marlow explains in a blog post Thursday:
The ACLU is not alone in its various concerns about the use of such cameras. Though the specific language of the model legislation was put forth by the group, they follow closely a set of principles issued last week by a broader coalition of civil rights groups calling for serious review and consideration of law enforcement’s use of these devices.
“To ensure mobile cameras are used to help eradicate discriminatory policing and protect civil rights,” the coalition said in a statement, “[we] are calling for camera policies to be developed publicly and to make sure that certain footage is made available to the public and the press. The groups also say that police departments must commit to a set of well-defined purposes for camera use, and need to specify clear operational policies for recording, retention, and access.”
Speaking on behalf of the coalition, Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said the suggested guidelines would “help ensure that cameras are tools for accountability—not instruments of injustice.” And added, “Without fair and transparent standards for the use of body worn cameras, police departments risk exacerbating the problems they are seeking to fix.”
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