Craig Ashton and Ed Schade spent some time on a recent episode of All Things Legal discussing the impact of body cams on police enforcement. Recent headlines involving police misconduct reiterate the need for accountability of law enforcement through body cams. Additionally, the evidence that can be obtained by body cams can be critical in legal cases.
Body cameras aren’t a cure-all for police misconduct, but they can reduce the use of force and the abuse of police powers. They’re a tool for accountability, not a magic potion to fix community-police relations, and like any tool, they need to be used properly. Without effective legal guidelines and community input, body cameras could fall short of the goal of enhancing accountability and, instead, actually decrease trust in police.
For example, when police haven’t recorded at critical moments or have failed to disclose footage, it’s led to a serious backlash. And without proper rules, deploying police body cameras en masse threatens to create a pervasive surveillance tool and turn what is supposed to be a check on police into a worrisome infringement in privacy.
Before police departments begin using body cameras, it’s critical that they first devote serious effort into setting guidelines that will ensure these devices serve their intended purpose and get input from affected communities.
The most fundamental question with body cameras is, when should they be recording?
Craig Ashton suggests it’s best to offer clean-cut rules rather than looser, discretion-based standards, and to have clear and strict policies that cameras should be on whenever officers are interacting with the public or engaged in a police action. That said, civilians should know when cameras are on and have the opportunity to opt-out. This is key both for protecting individual privacy and in supporting law enforcement investigations, where officers often speak to victims and witnesses in sensitive situations where individuals don’t want to be recorded.
The overarching question for body cameras is not, “should police have them?” but rather, “since police are going to have them, how should they be used?
It’s critical for both law enforcement and the communities they serve that departments, citizens, and lawmakers tackle the tough questions about body cameras and how to set effective guidelines, and that they begin doing so now.