Anti-Police Brutality Activists: Body Camera Guidelines No Panacea — and Might Make Things Worse

“Body cameras are already in use in some police departments across the country, and those departments have not changed their stated or actual missions," says an anonymous CopWatch activist.

FILE  - In this Nov. 5, 2014 file photo, Sgt. Chris Wicklund of the Burnsville (Minn) Police Department wears a body camera beneath his microphone. Despite body camera's spreading use and law enforcement concerns about sensitive footage becoming public, former police officer and Republican Rep. Tony Cornish says he plans to hold off on passing restrictions on the recording devices this year, saying he hopes to appoint a panel of experts to study the issue in the meantime. (AP Photo/Jim Mone,File)

(This post is from our new blog: Unofficial Sources.)

This morning, to much buzz nationwide, a coalition of over 30 privacy and civil rights organizations released a statement of shared principles outlining their vision for the future use of police body cameras. The coalition statement argues that body camera footage documenting police interactions with the public “can have a valuable role to play in the present and future of policing,” but insists that safeguards be put in place to ensure that body cameras do not become a “tool for injustice.” Signatories include ACLU, the NAACP, Color of Change and the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

The coalition’s five principles are that police departments must:

• develop policies for body cameras in public
• specify narrowly defined purposes for their use
• create clear policies for the recording and retention of footage
• make footage publicly available, with privacy safeguards
• prevent police officers from viewing the footage before filing reports

Some observers are concerned such recommendations may be counterproductive, especially if used to legitimize a technology that in the end will likely be left up to the self-regulation of police departments or their local government allies across the country.

“[A]ll this energy towards accountability … can be flipped into increased surveillance in communities of color and increased budgets to police,” activist Andrew Padilla told investigative journalist Raven Rakia last year. Padilla, who films civilian-police encounters as part of CopWatchNYC, pointed out that body cameras “record civilians. In cop watch, you record police.”

“Police shouldn’t have any control of the footage,” says Rakia, who focuses on the criminal justice system. “As you see with CCTV cameras everywhere, its very hard to get footage of police … a lawyer might be able to for a case, but for the public and press it’s very difficult. The police and the DA have complete control over footage and only use it to their advantage.”

The coalition’s statement is designed to address the concerns of anti-police brutality activists, requesting, for example, that police departments create policies to ensure the vast majority of all interactions with the public are recorded and that this footage be made available on public request, while minimizing use of facial recognition and biometric technologies.

“It’s appropriate to be suspicious of how this footage gets used or misused,” says coalition spokesperson Scott Simpson. “That suspicion is healthy. Whether you trust the police department to manage these policies, the who rather than the how, that’s another issue.”

There’s no question that the momentum is gathering for the wider use of body cameras. Last December, President Obama requested over $75 million to help pay for 50,000 body cameras in police departments nationwide, and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has instituted a body camera pilot program for the NYPD. On a recent stop on Hillary Clinton’s progressive rebranding tour, Clinton declared, “every police department in the country should have body cameras.”

But with pending legislation on police body cameras in 13 states that does not meet the standards of the coalition guidelines, and news of an upcoming U.S. Senate hearing on the use of body cameras, many anti-police brutality activists fear the debate over the use of body cameras has been cut off in progressive circles preemptively, putting those who face police brutality every day under more surveillance and in more danger.

Another CopwatchNYC activist from Brooklyn, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of police reprisal, told The Intercept, “Body cameras are already in use in some police departments across the country, and those departments have not changed their stated or actual missions. Body cameras won’t solve police brutality. They will be used to justify how police already serve their own interests. After all, body cameras don’t address the real problem, which is police themselves.”

Photo: Sgt. Chris Wicklund of the Burnsville, Minnesota Police Department wears a body camera beneath his microphone. (Jim Mone/AP)

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