Washington has a new answer to growing concerns about police brutality: body cameras.
After a series of controversial – and deadly – confrontations between law enforcement officers and minorities, the Department of Justice is launching a $20 million pilot program to implement body cameras nationwide. The department will spend another $1 million to study the impact of cameras. Meanwhile, cameras are being backed by members of both parties, with Democratic presidential contender Hillary Clinton calling them a tool to “increase transparency and accountability.” In March, Sen. Rand Paul, a GOP presidential candidate, and several Democrats introduced a bill to establish a similar grant program for body cameras.
But those involved in implementing police-worn body cameras – manufacturers, police, activists and local officials – warn that the technology doesn’t solve everything and actually creates significant challenges. There are big questions surrounding the use of body cameras, including when they should be turned on and off, how the footage should be stored and who will have access to view the videos.
Michael Baumann, who runs the digital video product group at Data911, a company that markets and sells body cameras, has seen an increase in inquiries but said many departments are slow to deploy the technology as they wrestle with these questions.
“Everybody is taking it cautiously because they know once it happens, the policy will stick and it will be enforced,” Baumann said. “Video will be available and it will change how people act on both sides of the camera.”
The push for body cameras reflects an attempt by national politicians to respond to criticism that there isn’t enough oversight of police departments. After all, the police officer accused of shooting and killing Walter Scott last month in North Charleston, South Carolina, was only charged after video of the incident surfaced. But that video was shot by a civilian, not a police officer.
The debate is more complicated at the local level.
Even in Baltimore, where protests continue to spill onto the streets following the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody, local lawmakers are split on how to implement body cameras. The Baltimore City Council approved a bill in November that would have required police to wear audio and video recording devices. But Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake vetoed the measure, citing questions about funding and the authority of the City Council to implement changes at the police department. In February, Rawlings-Blake submitted a new proposal for a body camera pilot program in the city.
City officials in Washington will host a roundtable this week to discuss the District of Columbia police department’s body camera program. The hearing comes on the heels of a proposal by Mayor Muriel E. Bowser to restrict who can have access to the videos.
According to The Associated Press, lawmakers in at least 15 other states have introduced bills that would limit the public’s access to videos.
Privacy and civil rights advocates are also skeptical about body cameras.
Alvaro M. Bedoya, the executive director of the Center on Privacy and Technology at Georgetown University Law Center, said that while he generally supports the use of body cameras, “What I am concerned about is that they are a back door to increased surveillance,” particularly in poor communities and communities of color.
Jeramie D. Scott, the privacy coalition coordinator at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a technology think tank that is against the use of body cameras by police, said the technology “introduces an additional avenue of surveillance and potential abuse,” particularly if local police departments implement facial recognition technology.
Another concern is whether police officers should be able to turn the cameras on and off at will and whether officers should be able to view their own footage. Baumann, of Data911, said that while many police departments have told their officers to record almost every interaction they are involved in, they have also given officers the option of turning off the camera in situations that may be more sensitive, such as domestic violence calls or encounters with minors.
But even if body cameras do make their way to every officer in America, whether video footage will minimize police brutality remains to be seen, said Malkia Cyril, executive director of the Center for Media Justice.
“The footage itself, even when caught in the act, doesn’t necessarily translate to accountability,” Cyril said. “If anyone is going to stand behind body cameras, advocating for them, they need to also stand for comprehensive police reform.”