Regulating Police Body-Worn Cameras

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Law enforcements’ expanding use of cameras raises questions over how to design programs governing them.

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Over the last decade, thousands of American law enforcement agencies have begun equipping their police officers with body-worn cameras (BWCs). BWCs are small cameras that officers attach to their persons that record footage while the officers complete routine work. 

BWCs have been thought to serve both a “law enforcement and a public accountability” function, as footage may be reviewed for police misconduct as well as additional investigation. Whether using BWCs effectively improves policing remains undetermined, with camera programs finding both supporters and critics

As police camera usage increases, questions arise over how the state and federal government as well as the police departments should regulate BWCs. How can police camera programs encourage accountability? How do they affect privacy? What factors should police departments consider when designing camera policies and programs? This Saturday Seminar features several pieces exploring how digital recording technology shapes developing policies in law enforcement. 

  • Writing for the South Dakota Law Review, Rich Braunstein and David Erickson frame police BWCs as an inevitable advancement in modern law enforcement. Indeed, Braunstein and Erickson report that at least two-thirds of the United States’ hundred largest cities have either implemented or made plans to implement some form of a BWC program. Braunstein and his coauthors urge police departments to take a deliberate approach when implementing new programs, predicting that once BWC programs are in place, any rollbacks will likely face public scrutiny. Moving forward, Braunstein and Erickson suggest standardizing BWC programs, including developing best practices and effective oversight regimes. 
  • In a recent article published in the North Carolina Law Review, assistant professor Seth Stoughton argues that, although police BWCs have the potential to deliver symbolic, behavioral, and informational benefits, advocates of the technology must carefully consider implementation goals and plans. Stoughton explains that there exist certain limitations, such as imprecise human interpretation of the videos and challenges in creating adequate infrastructure to ensure people can view the videos. Ultimately, Stoughton argues that, to achieve the coveted benefits of police BWCs, policymakers must identify their goals and study potential limitations before implementing the technology. 
  • Although many law enforcement agencies throughout America have adopted BWCs, Pennsylvania police departments “are lagging years behind their counterparts.” Becky Metrick, a reporter for the PA Post, attributes the delay to concerns over violating Pennsylvania’s former wiretapping law, which, before a 2017 amendment, applied to BWC footage. Since the law’s change in 2017, the Pennsylvania State Police have received federal grant money to pilot a BWC program and develop policies on the use of BWCs and storing BWC data.
  • In a 2015 white paper, American Civil Liberties Union senior policy analyst Jay Stanley argues that police departments should balance the risk of invading individuals’ privacy with the benefit of promoting officer accountability when requiring officers to wear BWCs. Stanley claims that acting on these considerations requires departments to ensure officers cannot manipulate their video recordings. He recommends that they place “reasonable” limits on camera recordings to protect privacy. “If officers are to have control over recording, it is important not only that clear policies be set, but also that they have some teeth,” argues Stanley, citing findings of compliance rates as low as 30 percent.
  • Today, police are consumers of new surveillance technologies created and sold by private companies. These private surveillance companies have an undue influence over police, argues Elizabeth E. Joh of the University of California, Davis, School of Law. In a New York University Law Review essay, Joh identifies three recent examples—stingray cellphone surveillance, BWCs, and big data programs—in which “the commercial self-interest of surveillance technology vendors that overrides principles of accountability and transparency normally governing the police” influences law enforcement. A lack of police guidelines and state legislation for the use of BWCs, Joh argues, has led to them becoming “poorly regulated all-purpose surveillance tools.”

The Saturday Seminar is a weekly feature that aims to put into written form the kind of content that would be conveyed in a live seminar involving regulatory experts. Each week, The Regulatory Review publishes a brief overview of a selected regulatory topic and then distills recent research and scholarly writing on that topic.