Ronald Bailey at Reason writes about a study of one city where all police officers were required to wear video cameras on their uniforms at all times when on duty. As one would expect, the results should be cheered both by civil libertarians and by the police officers themselves.
Earlier this year, a 12-month study by Cambridge University researchers revealed that when the city of Rialto, California, required its cops to wear cameras, the number of complaints filed against officers fell by 88 percent and the use of force by officers dropped by almost 60 percent. Watched cops are polite cops.
Jay Stanley, a policy analyst with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), calls police-worn video cameras “a win/win for both the public and the police.” Win/win because video recordings help shield officers from false accusations of abuse as well as protecting the public against police misconduct.
So why aren’t the police departments demanding such cameras? The answer is in that last sentence: it protects the public against police misconduct. Bailey has some suggestions on policies that should accompany a camera requirement:
In order to make sure that both the public and police realize the greatest benefits from body-worn video cameras, a number of policies need to be implemented. For example, police officers must be subject to stiff disciplinary sanctions if they fail to turn their cameras on each time they interact with the public. In addition, items obtained during an unrecorded encounter would be deemed a violation of the subject’s Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure and excluded as evidence, unless there were extenuating circumstances, such as a broken camera. Similarly, failure to record an incident for which a patrolman is accused of misconduct should create a presumption against that officer.
Officer-worn video cameras do have the potential to violate the privacy of citizens. After all, the police frequently are dealing with people when they are having one of the worst days of their lives. For instance, police often enter people’s houses to investigate incidents. In such cases, video of someone’s literal or metaphorical dirty laundry is nobody else’s business. Consequently, Stanley argues that strong rules regarding the retention, use, and disclosure of videos from police-worn cameras must be established and enforced. For example, videos should be retained for no more than 30 to 60 days, unless flagged. Of course, if the video contains evidence of a crime it should be retained just as any other evidence would be. Flagging would also occur for any incident involving force or a citizen complaint. With the appropriate strong privacy protections in place, very little of police-recorded video would ever be retained or viewed.
Officers should also be required to notify people that they are being recorded. Some preliminary evidence suggests that both police and citizens behave better when they know that they are being recorded. Additionally, the police should not have discretion to release any video to the public. For example, police would be barred from “leaking” videos like that of the drunken actress Reese Witherspoon being arrested in Atlanta for disorderly conduct after a traffic stop. (For what it is worth, the Atlanta police department denies releasing the Witherspoon scene.) Anyone who is recorded, on the other hand, should have access to the video and they should be allowed to consent to public release. Subjects who are incidentally recorded should be blacked out or blurred if the video is released.
All good policies.