Experts Acknowledge Usefulness of Body-Worn Cameras but Urge Caution (2/3/15)
Tuesday, February 03, 2015 | Comments

By Danny Ramey
Experts testifying before the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing acknowledged that body worn cameras (BWCs) can be useful tools in improving community trust in police officers but cautioned that the cameras are not a perfect solution to the problem.

“It’s important that BWCs are not seen as a silver bullet,” Johanna Miller, advocacy director for the New York Civil Liberties Union, said.

The task force held a pair of listening sessions Jan. 30 – 31 to hear testimony on policy and oversight, and technology and social media. The morning portion of the Jan. 31 session focused on research surrounding body-worn cameras and lessons learned from implementation.

Many of the panelists who testified emphasized privacy as a major concern when discussing body-worn cameras. For example, constitutional and civil rights attorney Scott Greenwood asked, if an officer records a video in a private residence, does that recording become part of the public record?

“We need to make sure people are not victimized twice,” he said. “The statutes have not kept up with technology.”

Tracy Keesee, co-founder and director of partnerships for the Center for Policing Equity, said states would need to amend open records because many current laws do not cover videos. Miller suggested that police departments implement a policy requiring officers to notify people when they’re being recorded.

Greenville (South Carolina) Police Chief Ken Miller talked about his department’s work in implementing body-worn cameras. He offered several recommendations that arose from that work, including:
• The federal government should avoid mandatory body-worn camera laws;
• Police department should have plenty of latitude in developing their own policies regarding the cameras to ensure those policies fit the needs of the community;
• A variety of studies in different areas should be conducted to measure the impact of the cameras on the frequency of use of force incidents and citizen complaints.

Jay McDonald, president of the Ohio State Lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police, said it is important not to let the body-worn cameras overrule police officers’ judgment.

“We should not allow this type of technology to affect the judgment of the officer who, with his own two eyes and ears, is in that exact moment facing that exact threat, and must make a split-second life-or-death decision,” he said during the panel on policing and oversight. “We do not want our officers even for a second to think, ‘How will this look on camera?’ Hesitation can mean death or serious injuries to the officer or others.”

Force Science Institute Executive Director Bill Lewinski spoke about how the recording from a body-worn camera offers but one perspective of an incident and not the absolute truth of what happened. Things such as the distance between cameras and officers, the illumination, the angle of the camera and the speed of action could all affect a recording, he said.

Additionally, he said, no recording can show exactly how an officer was interpreting the scene at a particular moment.

Several panelists also emphasized the importance of not allowing officers complete discretion over when the cameras are turned on or off or what is done with the recordings. Allowing officers complete discretion over the cameras would likely reduce public trust in their effectiveness, Greenwood said.

Task force member Cedric Alexander acknowledged the complexity of implementing body-worn camera policies.

“It reminds me to take a step back, pause and realize that we’re going to have to be somewhat methodical and strategic in the implementation of this technology,” Alexander said of the testimony.

In December, President Barack Obama created the task force to research and offer recommendations on effective policing practices that can reduce crime while building community trust. The president also proposed a $75 million investment package that would increase the use of body-worn cameras among police departments.

So far, the task force has held three listening sessions and will hold three more — two in Phoenix, Arizona, Feb. 13 – 14 and one in Washington, D.C. Feb. 23. Those sessions will cover community policing and crime reduction, training and education, and officer safety and wellness.

The task force must submit a preliminary report on recommendations to the president by March 2.

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