With police body camera recordings comes a need to balance privacy, transparency

A police officer wears an on-body camera during a demonstration.
A police officer wears an on-body camera during a demonstration. AP

Police departments across the nation, including those in five of North Carolina’s six largest cities, have equipped their officers with body cameras. According to a recent poll, 88 percent of Americans support body cameras, and state and federal governments have helped defray costs.

Proponents argue that cameras improve the transparency of law enforcement, and they insist that the public should have access to recordings to hold officers accountable. However, North Carolina law limits public access to body camera recordings, which may be appropriate because interests other than transparency are at stake.

It’s easy to understand the enthusiasm for body cameras. Early studies suggest that both officers and citizens behave better when they are being recorded. In pilot programs, officers equipped with body cameras have used force less often, and have been the subject of fewer complaints, than officers without cameras. If an interaction between an officer and a citizen does go badly, body camera footage may help determine who was at fault. Furthermore, body cameras may preserve important evidence of criminal behavior, as when a fleeing suspect eludes an officer but can be identified from the body camera footage.

The benefits of body cameras may be clear, but whether the public and the media should have access to the recordings is not. Officers frequently interact with citizens who may be intoxicated, emotionally distraught, injured or engaged in behavior that isn’t typical of them.

big privacy concerns

A police officer patrolling a park after dark may stumble on two teenagers making out. Another officer may stop to help a young woman stumbling home from a bar, sloppily dressed and slurring her words. A sheriff’s deputy may respond to a call about a domestic dispute and find two estranged spouses, normally upstanding citizens, screaming at each other while their children cry nearby. Officers regularly confront situations like these and often resolve them without criminal charges and to the satisfaction of all involved. Allowing the public to access footage of these incidents – and, inevitably, to post the footage on the Internet – raises serious privacy concerns.

Although the records of government agencies generally are open to the public, our public records law contains an exception for records of criminal investigations. Such records may be withheld from the public to protect the integrity of the investigations. Many states have similar provisions. No one wants bogus “eyewitnesses” to an officer-involved shooting coming forward after seeing enough body camera footage to make a fabrication plausible.

Personnel record?

Furthermore, body camera footage might qualify as a personnel record under state law because it may be used to evaluate officers’ performance and to discipline them. If body camera footage is a personnel record, it is confidential and can’t be released. The General Assembly considered several bills last session that would have clarified that such recordings are not personnel records, but none passed.

This state of affairs is frustrating to some. Virtually every recording of an officer using force against a citizen will be pertinent to any criminal investigation of the officer, the citizen or both. Therefore, the public has no right to access the footage in which it has the greatest legitimate interest and that is most relevant to transparency and accountability. Current law denies the public access even once the investigation is complete and the need to protect an ongoing investigation has dissipated.

On the other hand, the law may allow public access to body camera footage that isn’t pertinent to a criminal investigation, no matter how embarrassing the content. Even when there is no question about the officer’s conduct and so no accountability benefit to public access, the public and the media may be entitled to the footage. Concerns about privacy have led some states, like Florida, to remove body camera footage from the scope of the public records law altogether. Another possible privacy protection would be to give the individuals depicted in a recording a say in whether the footage is released.

There is a balance to be struck. Transparency is an important value, and body cameras have the potential to give us a valuable window into the conduct of law enforcement officers. But privacy matters, too, and body cameras have the potential to record all of us.

Jeff Welty is an associate professor at the UNC School of Government and serves as the director of the North Carolina Judicial College.