Who Watches the Watchmen? Body Cameras

Posted: February 11, 2015 by jn26 in Policing's New Visibility

A body camera is a video recording system that is typically utilized by law enforcement to record audio and video of the officer’s day-to-day interactions with the public, gather video evidence at crime scenes, and has been known to increase both officer and citizen accountability. Body cameras are small devices that are usually attached to the head or upper body of a police officer, while some miniature cameras are attached onto the glasses of police officers. It’s the latest technology being implemented into police departments across the country. Some cameras have enough battery life for a couple of hours of recording (usually 3 hours), while others can last as long as 12 hours. The cameras generally run between $200 to $1,000.

TASER

Firms such as Taser and Vievu produce body cameras for police officers. Taser’s camera model, the Axon Flex, includes two parts: a button for the officer to double-click so the camera starts recording, and a thin camera which attaches to any headgear or the officers collar using a secure magnetic mount (Lopez, 2015). On the other hand, Vievu took a slight different approach for its model. The device has a slider that turns the camera on, and is mounted onto the officers chest. Vievu stated that according to their knowledge, officers did not like wearing something on their heads for a long time.

As mentioned on Taser and Vievu’s website, all the footage being recorded runs through a secure online server that officers can access through an app on their smartphone but the main server that contains police interactions with the public which happen daily is stored on a website. Taser does not include a delete button on the camera. However, once the recording is uploaded on Tasers cloud, Evidence.com, Taser cannot view the videos as the only people allowed to view the footage are verified administrators (usually police chiefs). People must be verified to access the video, which is also recorded while they view the footage. For example, the log keeps track of what officers do to the footage, whether they apply tags to it to identify the situation or copy it for their own use. The original footage remains saved for 30 days (usually determined by the department), and the administrator receives a notification before the website deletes it. Individual police departments can also set their own policies for how videos from police cameras gets managed, who can view it, when it can be released to the media or the public, and how long footage is retained. Similar to how Taser keeps a track of the logs, Vievu logs all the user and file activity while viewing the footage. Instead of Evidence.com, the company uses a software called VeriPatrol, which allows departments to establish groups of people to see the video. Furthermore, according to Vievu’s President, Steve Lovell, the cameras include a feature called “Vidlock,” which ensures that once a camera has been assigned to a server and database, video recorded on that device can only upload to that server and database. This means cops can’t just hook their body cameras up to any old laptop with a USB cable and transfer files. Vievu also does not have any access to the videos.

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Purely from an accountability perspective, the ideal policy for body-worn cameras would be for continuous recording throughout a police officer’s shift, eliminating any possibility that an officer could evade the recording of abuses committed on duty. However, the balance that needs to be struck is to ensure that officers can’t manipulate the video recording, while also ensuring that officers are not subjected to a relentless regime of surveillance without any opportunity for shelter from constant monitoring (Lopez, 2013). Therefore it is vital that these cameras be accompanied by good privacy policies so that the benefits of the technology are not outweighed by invasions of privacy. First, the recordings should be limited to uniformed officers and marked vehicles so people know what to expect (Stanley, 2013). Officers are required to notify people that they are being recorded. Departments also consider a policy under which officers ask residents whether they wish for a camera to be turned off before they enter a home, except in circumstances such as an emergency. However an individuals request for cameras to be turned off should be recorded to document such requests. Data should also only be retained no longer than necessary for the purpose for which it was collected. Retention periods should be measured in weeks not years, and the video should be deleted after that period unless a recording has been flagged. Videos are automatically flagged if the incident involves a use of force, leading to arrest; or a formal or informal complaint has been made. Stanley goes on to say that the use of recordings should be allowed only in internal and external investigations of misconduct, and where the police have reasonable suspicion that a recording contains evidence of a crime. Otherwise, there is no reason that stored footage should even be reviewed before its retention period ends and it is permanently deleted. People that are recorded by these cameras should also have access to, and the right to make copies of the recordings, for however long the government maintains copies of them.

The purpose for body cameras is that police can be held accountable for their actions and also protect cops who are falsely accused of wrongdoings. Furthermore they help gain public reassurance, reduce fear of crime in local communities, increase early guilty pleas, resolve complaints about the police more quickly, reduce assaults on officers, and give an unbiased view of the situation. The cameras could also encourage police, who would know that their actions are being recorded, to behave better. Peter Bibring of the American Civil Liberties Union stated “Video might not resolve every dispute, it might not guarantee indictments or discipline in every case where they’re deserved — but the chances of justice without it seem much less”. Given that police now operate in a world in which anyone with a cell phone camera can record video footage of a police encounter, body-worn cameras were introduced to help police departments ensure events are also captured from an officer’s perspective as well.

Body cameras have a few benefits as well as drawbacks. They can certainly be useful for evidence, having significant implications on behavior for both the officer and the public since they know they’re being filmed, and gives an unbiased version of the incident as it shows events occurring before, during and after the incident. However, as Goldsmith stated, putting a video out there will not always produce accountability. In fact, it act’s as a catalyst – causing a reaction from the public which then forces authorities to take considerable action. The video kicks off a reaction that eventually causes accountability in the department but the video alone does not hold accountability, it’s the catalyst that does. Police may also be opposed to the new technology as it can weigh on them. It basically makes them perform their job by the books and jeopardize their successful work.

Bibliography

Lopez, G. (2015, January 13). Why police should wear body cameras and why they shouldn’t. Vox. Retrieved from: http://www.vox.com/2014/9/17/6113045/police-worn-body-cameras-explained

Stanley, J. (2013, October 9). Police Body-Mounted Camera: With Right Policies in Place, a Win For All. American Civil Liberties Union. Retrieved from: https://www.aclu.org/technology-and-liberty/police-body-mounted-cameras-right-policies-place-win-all

Stastna, K.(2014, December 5). Body Cameras: Can they reduce confrontations with police? CBC News. Retrieved from: http://www.cbc.ca/news/world/body-cameras-can-they-reduce-confrontations-with-police-1.2861881

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Comments
  1. Mike Larsen says:

    Your post opens with an effective overview of the topic. Good work. Your discussion of the specific recording processes related to body camera technologies is particularly important.
    This argument:

    “Purely from an accountability perspective, the ideal policy for body-worn cameras would be for continuous recording throughout a police officer’s shift, eliminating any possibility that an officer could evade the recording of abuses committed on duty. However, the balance that needs to be struck is to ensure that officers can’t manipulate the video recording, while also ensuring that officers are not subjected to a relentless regime of surveillance without any opportunity for shelter from constant monitoring (Lopez, 2013)”

    Is particularly insightful.

    Regarding your engagement with Goldsmith (2010), you note the limitations of ‘putting the video out there’. Would this happen in the case of body cameras? Is it likely that camera video would be released outside of a formal accountability process?