In the course of their work, cops encounter people that are intoxicated, distressed, injured or abused. The officers routinely invite key identifying information like addresses, dates of birth and driver’s license numbers, and that they frequently enter people’s homes and other private spaces.
With the arrival of police body cameras, this information is usually captured in police video recordings – which some states’ open-records laws make available to the general public .
Starting within the summer of 2014, as a part of research on police adoption of body-worn cameras within two agencies in Washington state, I spent hours riding in patrol vehicles, hanging out at police stations, interviewing officers, observing cops while they worked and administering surveys.
One of the foremost striking findings of my study was about the unintended effects of those cameras and associated laws. Body-worn cameras and freedom of data laws do enable oversight and accountability of the police. But, as I outline in my new book, “Police Visibility: Privacy, Surveillance, and therefore the False Promise of Body-Worn Cameras,” they also hold the potential to force sensitive data and stressful episodes privately citizens’ lives into public view, easily accessible online.
Do experts have something to feature to public debate?
Accountability, with visibility
Body-worn cameras are issued to police everywhere the us , with a patchwork of regulations and laws governing their operation and therefore the video they record. The goal is usually to form officers in charge of their actions, though their effectiveness at doing so has been questioned.
Opinions and laws also differ on when body camera footage should be made public. And, even when it's , interpreting what the footage depicts are often complicated. Nevertheless, the cameras have the potential to form police investigation , including misconduct and police violence, more visible.
I found that within weeks of adopting body-worn cameras, the police agencies I studied began receiving requests under local and state public records laws, seeking all of the footage recorded. In response, the departments began to release the videos, under the provisions of state public records laws with few – if any – redactions to guard citizens’ sensitive personal information. the first instigator of those initial requests posted the disclosed video to a publicly accessible YouTube channel.
One patrol officer told me, “I personally would never provide my personal information to a politician with a camera. It all finishes up on the web . that's wrong and unsafe.”
A woman gestures during a bedroom
An image from body-worn camera footage recorded during a prostitution sting in Bellingham, Wash., which later appeared on YouTube.com. The young woman’s face is obscured during this image to assist preserve her privacy. Bryce Newell
‘Say hi to the camera, honey!’
One winter afternoon in 2015, I accompanied a Spokane, Washington policeman on a violence call. After parking by the curb, we walked up the driveway to where a person was standing.
The officer i used to be shadowing turned on his body camera and informed the person that he had activated his camera and would be recording their conversation.
The man we had approached yelled down the driveway to his wife, “Smile and say hi to the camera, honey!”
The woman had allegedly taken a metal lumber and smashed within the man’s face across his eye. He had blood leaking from his eye and eyebrow and rolling down his nose and cheek. His eyebrow looked caved in; the bone was obviously broken. After a couple of minutes of questioning, the medics arrived and quickly rushed him to the ambulance.
The officer and that i followed them to the ambulance, where the officer continued to question the injured man, seeking to urge a press release or confession out of him on camera. His body camera continued to record everything ahead of the officer, including the person and therefore the inside the ambulance.
When the ambulance left, we entered the house , where the lady was being questioned. The officer continued to record just in case the lady might offer her own statement or confession.
Although much of what was recorded on the officer’s camera during this case occurred outside, within view of neighbors et al. present on the road , it still was a traumatic, personal and embarrassing moment within the lives of both victim and alleged offender.
But the very fact that a camera recorded it made these events far more visible, to a wider audience, for a extended time. Officers sometimes showed one another videos at the top of their shifts while writing reports, often to easily decompress after an extended shift or bond with their colleagues. additionally , the footage could potentially become public under state open records laws at the time it had been recorded.
Three images, one with a person together with his arms spread wide, then the person deed , then a policeman with a Taser pointed at the person
These screen captures are from a body-worn camera video recorded during a police contact and foot chase in Bellingham, Wash. Faces are obscured. Bryce Newell
‘Maybe I should stop drinking’
On another winter evening, I found myself standing inside another couple’s front room with two officers because the man and woman, separately, tried to elucidate why the wife had called 911 and accused the husband of threatening violence.
The husband was drunk – and drinking continuously while lecture the officer, who was wearing a camera on his chest. He told a rambling story about what proportion trouble his wife had caused him over the years, musing that perhaps he should leave her and advance , but perhaps he loves her. On the opposite hand, he said, she had caused him nothing but grief and made his life miserable. Moments later, he continued, “Maybe what i actually should do is stop drinking,” and he took another sip from his can .
Even if he had been sober, he probably wouldn't have realized that this conversation might find yourself on YouTube with virtually unlimited visibility. If he had, would he or his wife have let the police into their house within the first place? Would the wife even have called to report her husband’s threats?
A policeman gives a field sobriety test to an individual
This image is from body-worn camera footage of a field sobriety test in Bellingham, Wash., which later appeared on YouTube.com. Bryce Newell
There are potential social costs to deploying body-worn cameras, including possible invasions of privacy when sensitive moments are recorded or made public, and increasing police surveillance of communities already subjected to heightened police attention. When body cameras are introduced, careful attention to existing laws and policies, including public records laws, can help minimize harm to the general public while increasing the transparency of police investigation .
As I discuss in my book, one possible solution might be redacting personal information about victims, witnesses, bystanders and even suspects, as long because it isn't associated with enforcement officer conduct. Other options include creating independent oversight groups to review footage before its release, giving victims and their families access to footage, and erring on the side of nondisclosure when body cameras record privately spaces or in particularly sensitive contexts.
I believe these are possible without limiting public access to procedural information about how officers conduct their activities, to enable oversight and accountability.
Just as videos of Black people’s deaths at the hands of the police should be treated with more care, the choice to form police video that captures sensitive and traumatic moments of people’s lives public should be a measured and thought of one. In my view, there's no use to force civilians onto the general public stage just because they're contacted by a policeman .
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