Police Body Cam Law Raises Privacy And Logistical Concerns

The state of Minnesota, like many states, is finding out that laws with the intent to restore public trust are a lot more complicated than proponents thought

A mannequin cop wears a real body cam - REUTERS/Jim Young — REUTERS
May 26, 2016 at 11:42 AM ET

Making police more accountable isn’t as simple as gluing a camera to a badge. The use of body cameras requires lawmakers to navigate a thicket of legal issues, balancing privacy and public disclosure, as well as the logistics of data retention and cost. Right now in Minnesota, the difficulty of balancing all these spinning plates is on display as a controversial body camera law makes its way to Democratic Governor Mark Dayton. The controversy surrounding that law encapsulates a larger conflict between America’s democratic institutions, and its population’s hopes for a quick technological fix.

According to Michigan Public Radio, “The bill makes public all footage that involves discharge of an officer’s weapon or the use of force by an officer that results in ‘substantial bodily harm.’ All other footage is classified as private, although the subject of the footage can request the data themselves and release it.”

This doesn’t sound like accountability to some: “ACLU of Minnesota legislative director Ben Feist said the bill undermines the goal of police body camera programs, which he says are designed to restore the public’s trust in law enforcement.

‘Classifying almost all of this body camera footage as private data will shield officer misconduct while also allowing police yet another tool for pervasive surveillance of our communities, and we think that’s a problem,’ Feist said.”

The article cites Feist taking issue with the law since it “doesn’t offer any guidance for when officers should activate cameras or when officers should inform members of the public that they’re being recorded.” This could allow rules on cameras to differ from police department to police department.

“Suffice it to say that these are issues that just every state in the union is grappling with,” says Nancy La Vigne, director of the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center, which produced a report on body camera regulations state to state. “Arguably anyone captured on camera in course of interaction with law enforcement is innocent until proven guilty,” she says “under what circumstances should their identity be known?”

According her the increased use of body cameras is based on a “false promise” that they can guarantee transparency. It’s a promise that took hold over the American imagination just recently. Body cameras have existed for years, but reentered national discourse after the killing of Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri in August of 2014. After Brown’s death and the turmoil that followed, many—including Brown’s family and the president—suggested police body cameras as a solution to police brutality. As a contentious national conversation on police abuse continues, the cameras seem like a promising fix. Last year the Department of Justice spent nearly $20 million to help spread them nationwide.

While the widespread use of police body cameras is a recent occurrence, research indicates they have some promise. “It appears that body worn cameras have a civilizing effect on both law enforcement and the citizens with whom they interact,” says La Vigne, “the question is how long-lasting will that be.” Once cops and citizens both get accustomed to being filmed during any interaction or altercation, the uptick in good behavior could come to an end.

Although promising, body cameras are far from perfect. “I think a lot of people don’t realize that these cameras are not rolling 24/7,” she says. Officers have to turn a body camera on. The dangerous situations in which the public are most likely to want recordings, are also the ones in which it makes the most sense for a cop to have their attention pointed elsewhere. La Vigne says that until the technology on the body cameras improves, getting them to turn on automatically “you’re still going to have a lot of challenges with the public expectation not meeting reality.”

Governor Dayton has not yet decided if he’ll sign the Minnesota bill into law.