The national movement to end police violence has increasingly focused on the need for law enforcement officers to be equipped with body-worn cameras that record their interactions with the public.
These devices, which clip on to an officer’s uniform or are worn as a headset, have great potential to be a “win-win” for police and communities alike, both by holding officers accountable for improper actions and by protecting them from frivolous accusations of misconduct.
But as with most opportunities for change, the devil is in the details. Without strong policies to guide the use of body cameras, and ensure that they will both promote accountability and protect privacy, it’s doubtful that this technology will help bridge the divide between many law enforcement agencies and the communities they serve.
Dozens of law enforcement agencies in North Carolina, from Asheville and Charlotte to Durham and Wilmington, are investing in body cameras with the help of state and federal funding, and many more are expected to follow. Communities across our state have a meaningful opportunity to enhance police and community relations by advocating for body camera policies that follow several important guidelines:
Clear directives for when to activate body cameras – Officers should not be allowed to decide when and where to begin, pause, or stop recording. If they are, any check on police power and communities’ ability to trust that the recording captures what really occurred is greatly diminished. Policies should also direct officers to use their body cameras only when engaging with individuals rather than continuously record throughout their shifts. This ensures that body cameras will not be used as tools of mass surveillance, and also protects individual police officers’ privacy while on breaks.
Reasonable public access policies – At the very least, people recorded by body cameras should be able to view and have access to those recordings upon request. Recordings that contain footage of public interest — when officer conduct or use of force is called into question, for example — should be made public. Policies should provide details on how the public can request access to footage.
Clear data retention mandates – How long police keep the videos should depend on whether they contain important evidence or other public interest value. Recordings that hold some public or law enforcement value, like capturing an arrest that results in charges or capturing an altercation between an officer and a member of the public, should be flagged for longer retention. Those that do not should be quickly deleted.
Disciplinary consequences for violating policies – In order to ensure proper use of body cameras and guard against abuse, policies should specify additional training opportunities and disciplinary consequences for officers who repeatedly misuse body cameras and improperly handle body camera recordings.
Many North Carolina agencies have released policies that lay out clear directives for when and why body cameras should be turned on, as well as strike the right balance when it comes to detailing clear data retention schedules. But the majority of them are falling short when it comes to including real disciplinary consequences for officer misuse of body cameras, or developing reasonable public access policies that ensure, at the very least, that people captured on videos have access to that footage.
Public access lies at the heart of the body camera movement and unfortunately, most North Carolina law enforcement agencies are getting this wrong. Most policies are opting to shield any recording from being disclosed if it is a matter of “criminal investigation or intelligence” — a broad law enforcement exception to North Carolina public records law — or conversely, classifying the recording as part of an officer’s personnel file, in cases where body camera footage is used to monitor officer performance.
Upon learning that the Durham Police Department’s draft body camera policy wouldn’t allow the public any access to body camera footage, one resident rightly said, “Well, that's not going to be helpful at all. That's just going to benefit (the police).” To realize the positive potential of body cameras, North Carolina law enforcement agencies — and the elected officials who oversee them — must enact policies that build trust between police departments and the communities they serve, not create new barriers to accountability.
Susanna Birdsong is Policy Counsel at the ACLU of North Carolina.