Police body cameras can’t provide accountability without transparency

In this Wednesday, May 24, 2017, photo, Cobb County police officer wears a body camera as he works an off-duty security detail at at an Atlanta Braves baseball game in Atlanta. The push across U.S. cities to outfit police with body cameras often stops when it comes to officers who moonlight working security at nightclubs, hospitals and ballparks. An Associated Press review finds most police agencies don’t require or won’t allow body cameras for off-duty officers working in uniform. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

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One of the clearest victories to come out of the past three or so years of uproar over police misconduct is Americans’ overwhelming support for equipping police with body cameras.

The most recent national poll I’ve seen on the subject found nine in 10 Americans want cops wearing cameras, and more recent, smaller-scale polls (like these surveys from New York City, Nashville and Pennsylvania) see that number holding steady.

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As I wrote last year here at Rare, body cams are a no-brainer for people across the political spectrum because they’ve been shown to reduce incidents of violence and civil rights complaints against police. Everyone is more inclined to be on their best behavior if they know they’re on camera, which increases safety for police and civilians alike.

Still, as I argued then, it isn’t as simple as slapping a camera on every cop. The rules surrounding how the cameras are used and what is done with the footage they collect make all the difference.

That’s why this new report from The Verge is so troubling. In some states, body camera footage is being concealed from the general public:

North Carolina, for example, passed legislation last year excluding body camera video from the public record, so footage is not available through North Carolina’s Public Records Act. That means civilians have no right to view police recordings in the Tar Heel state unless their voice or image was captured in the video.

Louisiana also exempts body camera video from public records laws. South Carolina will only release body camera footage to criminal defendants and the subjects of recordings. Kansas classifies body camera video as “criminal investigation documents” available only when investigations are closed. […]

Other states are now also looking to make body cam video extremely difficult to obtain.

As the Verge report comments, the whole concept of body cameras as an accountability tool is “that taxpayer-purchased body camera videos should be available to taxpayers.” The cameras can’t provide accountability without transparency. All the footage in the world doesn’t do any good if the public can’t access it.

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The Police Executive Research Forum, a law enforcement research organization with members from police departments around the country, agrees. A 2014 report from the organization correctly argued that “body-worn camera video footage should be made available to the public upon request not only because the videos are public records, but also because doing so enables police departments to demonstrate transparency and openness in their interactions with members of the community.”

For those concerned about violence by police and violence against police, body cameras are key — but without good laws ensuring transparency, they’ll cost taxpayers money without keeping us safe.

What do you think?

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