Wearable video cameras, or body cams, might soon become standard equipment for police on the beat – a possibility that has led to both praise and concern from civil liberties groups.
Some local governments are encouraging the use of “on-officer recording systems” because they limit complaints and the potential of costly lawsuits against municipalities.
“I think there’s a lot of potential for good,” Executive Director Donna Lieberman of the New York Civil Liberties Union told NBC News. “There’s nothing like video to allow people to believe something they might otherwise not be able to accept as possible.”
The ACLU Wants Police Wired for Video
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which is normally opposed to camera surveillance, favors the use of such cameras – with caveats. The organization released a report on its recommendations.
“Cameras have the potential to be a win-win, helping protect the public against police misconduct, and at the same time helping protect police against false accusations of abuse,” the report stated.
The ACLU’s thinking is that complaints against police are often difficult to prove or disprove because there is little or no evidence. The video cameras, which are about the size of an iPod, can provide such evidence.
Evidence also indicates that police officers are more likely themselves to behave and follow the rules when they wear such cameras. When the Rialto, California, police tested the cameras they found that complaints against their department fell by 88 percent.
Cops who were wearing the cameras were less likely to be abusive or use force in an arrest, the year-long study found. The study apparently convinced federal judge Shira A. Scheindlin to require New York cops to wear cameras in a court order that ended the NYPD’s notorious Stop and Frisk policy.
The Threat to Privacy and Constitutional Rights
Even though such cameras may produce the benefit of ending police abuse they could be a serious threat to constitutional rights. In particular, the cameras could violate the Fourth Amendment’s ban on warrantless surveillance and searches and the Fifth Amendment, which bans self-incrimination.
“Body cameras have more of a potential to invade privacy,” the ACLU noted. “Police officers enter people’s homes and encounter bystanders, suspects and victims in a wide variety of sometimes stressful and extreme situations.”
There are a number of ways such cameras could violate privacy. One would be if police loaded video footage of a suspect onto YouTube or sold it to a media outlet. Americans love to laugh at the antics of drunken or out-of-control people on TV or the computer screen. You might not think that’s so funny when it is you or one of your loved ones being turned into a national or international laughingstock.
Police Cameras in Your Home
The ACLU is concerned that police might keep the cameras running when they enter private homes. That could be construed as a warrantless search or an attempt to gather evidence.
An even worse violation could occur if plainclothes or undercover police officers used body cams to gather evidence or conduct surveillance.
“Recording should be limited to uniformed officers and marked vehicles, so people know what to expect,” the organization proposed. The group is also opposed to the use of such cameras for intelligence gathering purposes. An example of that might be taking pictures of people who attend a protest.
The group would also like to see police notify citizens that they are on camera. One way of doing this would be have officers wear a pin or badge that stated a camera was in use.
The public would have the right to ask officers to shut off the cameras, under the ACLU’s proposal. Police would be required to turn off cameras if they entered private property without a warrant.
A big question here is what happens to the video police take. Currently there seem to be no rules on what video police departments can store or how long they can store it.
Do you think police should wear cameras?