Body-Worn Cameras and the Right to Privacy
- Written by Amy Dinsmore
- September 9 2016
Body-worn cameras have the potential to benefit both police officers and their communities—protecting officers from false accusations and assuring civilians that police are being held accountable for their actions.
But body-worn camera use also brings tricky questions of privacy, since with BWCs even regular, friendly interactions between police and citizens may be caught on film. As law enforcement agencies seek to craft effective policies for BWCs, they must take into consideration both officer safety and the privacy rights of citizens.
Here are a few things law enforcement agencies should take into account in order to craft body-worn camera policies and practices that protect citizens’ right to privacy:
Establish when officers should turn BWCs on and off
Requiring officers to keep body-worn cameras on all the time poses issues of increased storage for footage and over-surveillance of both officers and passersby. But allowing officers too much discretion about when to turn the cameras on and off could leave room for the public to question an officer’s actions.
Body-worn camera policies must clearly lay out when officers are required to turn cameras on and off. The ACLU suggests that policies require officers to record any law enforcement or investigative encounter with a civilian—including things such as arrests, stops, searches, interviews and more. However, policies should allow for some exceptions in sensitive cases such as interviews with anonymous informants or sexual assault victims where the witness or victim requests not to be recorded.
Policies should also include the disciplinary actions that will be taken if an officer doesn’t record when required or alters camera footage.
Inform citizens when they’re being recorded
Another key way to protect citizens’ right to privacy is to tell them when they’re being recorded. This has the potential to help officers as well as protect citizen privacy; studies have shown that people tend to behave better when they know they are being recorded, which helps de-escalate conflicts between officers and civilians.
Notification of camera use is especially important if officers are entering someone’s house in a non-emergency or raid situation. Before entering a house, officers should ask residents whether they want cameras turned off.
Retain footage only as long as required
Law enforcement agencies should flag footage that shows use of force, an arrest or an incident for which a complaint has been filed and keep that footage as long as state and federal laws require. However, most recordings of day-to-day police-civilian interactions should be deleted after a standard, relatively short retention time. Footage that doesn’t include evidence of a crime or of police misconduct should not be released without the consent of the subject. And agencies should use redaction software to protect the identities of witnesses, passersby and others unwittingly caught on tape.
Though every body-worn camera policy will have to be adjusted as officers use BWCs on the field, these three principles will help any law enforcement agency develop body-worn camera policies that balance the interests of both officers and civilians.