The Double Edged Sword of Body Cameras

As the public’s trust in law enforcers diminished demands were made to monitor working police officers. These demands resulted in calls for making officers wear body cameras that recorded their actions while they worked. In response many law enforcement agencies started buying body cameras and issuing them to the police. This satiated many peoples’ demands for police monitoring but some of us pointed out the limited utility of body cameras due to the fact that the departments usually controlled the footage. So long as body camera footage isn’t made available to the public in some manner it’s far too easy for departments to make any footage that incriminates their officers disappear down a memory hole.

Since no standards exist regarding the availability of police body camera footage states, counties, and cities are making up their own rules as they go. Locally a Hennepin County judge recently ruled that police body camera footage is off limits to the public:

So Hennepin prosecutors met with the chief judge and representatives of the Hennepin Public Defender’s Office, which handles 45,000 cases a year. The result was Bernhardson’s order, which asserts that prosecutors and defense attorneys have to follow the guidelines of the law, which save for “certain narrow exceptions,” classifies body camera video as off-limits to the public.

As the article points out, there are some difficult privacy questions regarding police body camera footage. However, body cameras are of limited use if such footage is classified as off-limits to the public. Under such a system body cameras allow law enforcers to use the footage as evidence against the people they arrest but don’t allow the public to use the footage to hold bad law enforcers accountable.

This lopsided policy shouldn’t surprise anybody. Law enforcement departments wouldn’t willingly adopt body cameras if they could realistically be used to hold officers accountable. But they would jump at the chance to use such devices to prosecute more people because then body cameras are a revenue generator instead of a liability. The State, having an interest in appeasing its revenue generators, has been more than happy to give law enforcers a ruleset that gives them the benefits of body cameras without the pesky downsides.

What does this mean for the general public? It means everybody should record, and preferably livestream, every police encounter they are either a party to or come across.

One thought on “The Double Edged Sword of Body Cameras”

  1. Hey, the police can absolutely be trusted — to conceal anything they can that reflects poorly on them. So definitely it’s vital that raw footage be under control of someone who is NOT a cop, nor anyone else who could be expected to defer to cops. As a strategic matter, however, maybe it makes sense to get cameras strapped on all of them, and THEN pry control of the resulting footage away?

    In the mean time, and probably for some time to come, it’s up to us normal people to record the cops whenever we see them. I keep a little camera in my pocket that takes sharp, 1280×720 video, with zoom and image stabilization. To back that up, in case it’s confiscated, a digital audio recorder I can stick in my shirt pocket.

Comments are closed.