By District Attorney Bruce Brown
In the wake of police officer-involved shootings from Ferguson, Mo., to North Charleston, S.C., there is no hotter topic among law enforcement agencies and district attorneys than the routine employment of body cams for patrolling police officers. In next year’s Colorado legislature, which has an enormous appetite right now for regulating police, there are bound to be proposals including requiring body cams for every police department.
An undercurrent of police distrust is driving a need to not just hear their testimony in court but to see what the officer saw through the utilization of recorders mounted in their cars and upon their bodies. Similarly, police feel vulnerable to people they encounter who might make a false allegation of misconduct against them, and the officers themselves view body cams as a tool to prove their own innocence with the tap of the “play” button.
The use of police body cams in the United States is growing. Last December, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti announced plans to deploy 7,000 police body cams, and the Washington D.C. Police Department recently announced that 200 officers are participating in a body camera pilot program that could be expanded to include 3,000 officers. The Denver Police Department recently completed a six-month pilot project that outfitted 102 patrol officers with video cameras.
Arizona-based Taser International recently reported that as of March 31, it had sold body camera equipment to more than 3,000 police agencies and that more than 5,500 police agencies use EVIDENCE.com through which a new video file is uploaded to its “Cloud”-hosting service every four seconds.
Cameras and video in public have become a societal norm, and there are web cams of city streets, keyhole cams, wedding chapel cams, dash cams and body cams, and today many of us are armed with a mobile devices equipped with video cameras.
Polls show that the American public is comfortable with our growing surveillance culture. A recent YouGov/Economist poll taken after the April police shooting of Walter Scott in South Carolina shows support for police body cams is high. In the poll, 88 percent of Americans support police officers wearing body cameras with 8 percent opposed. In that poll, 56 percent strongly favor police body cams.
The YouGov poll reveals that support for police body cams is nearly universal with 92 percent of Democrats and 84 percent of Republicans, and 84 percent of African-Americans and 89 percent of whites agreeing that police officers should wear body cams.
With support for police body cams so high and their use by law enforcement agencies growing, what is the downside?
Imagine a scenario where a Colorado citizen dials 9-1-1 believing there is an intruder attempting to gain entry to the home. Within a short time, a sheriff’s deputy responds to the call wearing a body cam and is recording everything in his or her immediate, frontal view. As the officer enters the home. within his view is the homeowner’s 4-year old child, who has toddled out of the nearby bathroom without clothes on in search of pajamas. The caller, too, might be upset, barely able to put two words together because of a suspected burglar lurking outside, and they are unlikely to be dressed to receive visitors.
The officer’s presence calms the situation and his or her quick and thorough investigation reveals that there was no intruder, only fear created by the wind blowing a branch against a window. The entire event, which is a potential embarrassment to the 9-1-1 caller, was recorded by the deputy’s body cam. Later a curious neighbor learns of the incident and files an open records request for the body cam video footage, which includes scenes inside the caller’s home.
Body cam footage is a public record subject to potential disclosure, and a government agency wrongfully withholding such records can be required to pay the attorneys fees of a requester. To comply with public record requestsm law enforcement agencies expend significant time and money to edit the tape, such as obscuring faces, before complying with the open records request.
Ultimately the footage could be posted on YouTube, subjecting the caller to embarrassment and regret for making the call. And there are many more serious, compromising and damaging scenes that could be posted to the Internet when police videos are in the public domain.
The American Civil Liberties Union has been grappling with the issue of privacy and protection of citizens from police brutality for years. In a 2013 White Paper, the ACLU suggested that police departments should require that body cams be worn only by uniformed officers (except in SWAT raids) and that officers should notify people that they are being recorded.
The existence of body cams is not necessarily detrimental to the public interest, but the movement toward requiring all police agencies to employ this technology demands a careful consideration from all of our communities to ensure that in advance of deploying body cams, all the associated risks are carefully considered.
During the 2014-15 session, the Colorado State Legislature created a new Department of Public Safety study group that will recommend policies for the use of body cams in a report to be issued by March 2016.
We encourage Colorado citizens to present their views and concerns to the study group to make sure that the people are part of the state’s decision on the use of police body cams.
Bruce Brown is the district attorney for the Fifth Judicial District of Colorado serving Clear Creek, Lake, Eagle and Summit Counties. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.