Wisely, the Durham Police Department isn’t rushing into adoption of body cams, those miniature video recorders hailed by some as an antidote to police misconduct. This technology raises as many, maybe more, questions than it answers.
The department held six listening forums in April and May to gauge public concerns about the value of body cams and their potential impact on individual privacy.
Without doubt, the department will follow the national trend and adopt body cams. Two Triangle-area towns, Hillsborough and Knightdale, already use them and others are close to doing so.
While using body cams might seem a simple solution to allegations of police misconduct, the truth is that recording officer-civilian confrontations can be fraught with post-arrest difficulties.
It’s a good idea to follow the American Civil Liberties Union’s reasoning on this, because the organization will pounce on any police infractions brought to its attention.
On the whole, however, the ACLU in its latest position paper on body cams leans favorably toward body cams, with well-defined conditions on their use.
That’s likely why Deputy Chief Anthony Marsh said at one of the listening forums that any body cams used by the Durham Police Department will be tamper-proof. In other words, neither the officer involved nor anyone else in the police pecking order will be able to erase, redact or otherwise modify body cam videos.
A video record of an arrest in a public space generally presents the fewest issues, since a person’s expectation of privacy in public is essentially nil. But the situation is different inside one’s dwelling, where the expectation of privacy under the Fourth Amendment is high, especially for other family members.
Although the ACLU recognizes the primacy of the police power over privacy in extreme cases such as SWAT raids or other emergency actions, the group suggests that in routine instances the police should tell people they are being recorded before entering a home.
In fact, the ACLU notes that body cams could be equipped with red “on” lights and officers could also carry badges signifying they have a cam.
Moreover, the group says, body cams shouldn’t be used to gather in-home intelligence on First Amendment-protected speech, associations or religious affiliations under the guise of routine police work.
That’s an important constitutional safeguard, one that would prevent endless wrangling in the courts that might undermine the whole concept of body cams.
What, though, happens to the videos? Are they a public record accessible to suspects, defendants, attorneys and news organizations (as police dash cam recordings are now)?
Yes, in most cases they are public records, but how long these recordings should be held by the police is usually a local matter. The ACLU suggests weeks, not months, unless a recording has been flagged by either the defendant, the police, or both.
Because storing digital recordings, which can quickly mount into a Mt. Everest of ones and zeroes, is costly and they are subject to magnetic deterioration, there is no reason to keep the great majority of body cam videos.
The ACLU suggests flagging for long-term storage should occur automatically in forceful arrests and whenever a formal or even informal complaint is made against the police.
These policies seem reasonable to me, though they impose some additional clerical and paperwork on the police. As long as citizens know that body cam videos cannot be erased or modified and that they are guaranteed access to them by law, most people likely will be satisfied.
This for sure: “Smile, you’re on candid camera” takes on a whole new meaning.
Bob Wilson lives in southwest Durham.