Why We Shouldn’t Leave Police Departments to Work Out Body Camera Rules

SEPTA Police's new body-worn camera and attached walkie-talkie. This is part of a six week pilot program. Photo by Joshua Albert

SEPTA’s new body-worn camera and attached walkie-talkie. This is part of a six week pilot program. Photo by Joshua Albert

By Christopher Moraff (Next City)

Conflicting accounts over the circumstances that led to the police shooting of Mike Brown in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson have amplified an ongoing public discussion around the use of body-wearable cameras, or BWCs, by police officers.

Over the past week, a chorus of politically diverse voices from media outlets as varied the National Review and ThinkProgress have weighed in on the issue, with most agreeing that the public would benefit from requiring officers to record their encounters with citizens. As evidence of the cameras’ effectiveness, the Wall Street Journal cited data out of the California city of Rialto — one of three municipalities that have conducted studies on BWC use — that showed the devices led to a 60 percent drop in police use of force and an 88 percent reduction in civilian complaints.

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Yet it’s also hard to argue that the potential drawbacks of body-mounted cameras outweigh their benefits if care is taken to avoid rushing into mass adoption of BWC technology before a proper foundation has been established.

Dustin Slaughter, co-editor of The Declaration, a Philadelphia-based news site that covers privacy and surveillance issues — voices some of the unanswered questions yet to be addressed:

“Will it be a scenario where, like Philadelphia Police Department’s automatic license plate reader program, they can store data for up to a year even if you’re not under suspicion? Also, will federal agencies outside of the police department have unfettered access to the footage? As for disciplinary procedures for cops who selectively activate and deactivate body cameras, should we hold our breath that there will be any true meaningful policies to hold those officers accountable?”

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