Commentary

03.04.15

Police Body Cameras Are Promising, but Need Protections in Place

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Police body cameras
Photo: West Midlands Police via Flickr Creative Commons

Every so often, new or updated technology is introduced to law enforcement. The list includes tear gas, pepper spray, stun guns, dashboard cameras, and automatic license plate readers, among other things.

These tools greatly assist police. Often, they may benefit the public; however, they also can have a detrimental impact on our civil liberties when proper procedures and policies regarding their use are not in place.

Such is the case with wearable body cameras.

It’s true body cameras will provide an important check against some police abuses. On the other hand, it’s correct to say the spread of this technology raises a litany of important, and sometimes competing, issues. Indeed, police practices and conduct, privacy, open records and government transparency are all important considerations needing discussion before we go too far down this road, with little guidance available.

If body cameras are to benefit all involved, careful thought must be given when answering these specific questions:

  •  How much discretion do officers have to activate or deactivate the cameras?
  •  What kind of notice should the public be given if they are being recorded?
  •  How long should recordings be retained?
  •  When do recordings become public record and available to the news media?
  •  What punishment is appropriate for officers who misuse or abuse cameras?

“It is true body cameras will provide an important check against some police abuses. On the other hand, it’s correct to say the spread of this technology raises a litany of important, and sometimes competing, issues.”

At the ACLU of Ohio, we have been examining these complex issues and their ramifications. We’ve been meeting with law enforcement and news media groups to share ideas and listen to concerns. Remarkably, there’s been much agreement about what the best practices are or should be for use of body cameras.

Hopefully, these ongoing efforts will lead to statewide standards to avoid the headache of different policies—some good, some mediocre, some awful—around Ohio. This may make legislation necessary.

The ACLU of Ohio will continue playing an active role in this important public policy debate.

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