At HuffPo, Nick Wing raises questions arising from police department policies on the disclosure of body cam footage. Remember when some cops resisted the idea of wearing body cams? What about their privacy? What about the cost?
What about the privacy of people they dealt with during a shift who fell far short of newsworthy, who weren’t having their best day, who didn’t deserve to be subject to public exposure, ridicule perhaps, for having the misfortune of crossing paths with a cop?
What about the public’s right to know?
As the public searches for answers about what happened on that afternoon in March, a new set of concerns has emerged about police officers’ use of body cameras — and how, or if, the devices will promote accountability and transparency if the policies that govern the footage are overly restrictive.
Two of the officers involved in Keunang’s killing were equipped with body cameras that were recording during the episode. Although investigators have that footage in their possession, the LAPD has not publicly released it. Under recently adopted policy, the department likely won’t release the videos unless it’s compelled to do so in a criminal or civil court proceeding.
Having been an early adopter of the critical utility of cameras, with the similarly critical caveat that they will never be a panacea, and could also be a weapon in the manipulation of information, the issue raised by police policies as to the release of video introduces another significant wrinkle.
Critics say the LAPD’s body camera policy is problematic because it allows the department to withhold its footage from the public, it requires officers to review footage before they write police reports, it doesn’t lay out clear punishment for officers who fail to turn on their cameras during critical incidents, and it doesn’t provide clear privacy protections to limit public surveillance.
This is a troubling list of complaints. But at their core is an essential problem: Giving police the power to block the release of body camera footage deprives the public of an opportunity to better formulate an opinion about police tactics and to push back with facts, should community members find an officer’s actions to be inappropriate. In many places, bad body camera policy is threatening to undercut public demands for accountability and transparency before programs even get off the ground.
This mash-up of issues tends to confuse the problem. Allowing police officers to see video before writing up reports or being questioned allows them to tailor their statements to what the video shows. This is a terrible problem, but of a wholly different nature than the public “accountability and transparency” question.
There are, sorry to say, sound arguments favoring the policy of not disclosing all body cam video. Aside from much of it being monumentally boring, and revealing nothing of public interest, it’s hugely expensive to maintain a library of all video, to handle this morass of data, very little of which is worth keeping. Yet, one never knows when video of something that appears entirely insignificant at one time proves to be critically important at another.
Much as one can dismiss cost in light of headier concerns of “justice,” mostly recognized only in retrospect, this is money that comes from taxpayer’s pockets, and can’t be used for other things, education for example, that are also worthy. Scarce resources, bro. They have to be allocated.
While the police concerns for privacy of the public come off as disingenuous, as most surmise that cops couldn’t care less about anyone but themselves or they wouldn’t go around shooting people quite so quickly, that doesn’t mean the concern isn’t valid. Be that guy in his skivvies caught mistakenly on cop-cam, and broadcast on Youtube for your friends’ and neighbors’ lulz, and see how you feel about privacy.
And then there is the base question of the public’s right to know. Is that a right? Sure, these are public servants, men and women who get a government paycheck and so work on our dime. Why do they get to claim secrecy from the people who fund their vested pensions?
People are already being left out of this most basic decision-making process, says Nadia Kayyali, an activist for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit that focuses on digital rights and technology.
“Where body cams are being adopted, it’s really important that community members — particularly those who come from the communities that are most affected by police accountability issues — need to be involved in that decision. They need to have a discussion,” Kayyali said. “And what we’re already seeing is that instead, law enforcement agencies are applying for this money without that discussion.”
This contention appears to reflect a serious ignorance of a republican form of governance. The public doesn’t shell out money directly to Officer Friendly, but to a general fund that’s allocated by people we elect to office, who hire other people to run agencies. Like police departments. They aren’t required to ask the permission of every taxpayer before deciding how to do their job.
Then again, there are the ordinary, daily, petty issues and there are huge, overarching, very expensive, issues. It would not be unreasonable to argue that body cams are a big issue that shouldn’t be left to a government functionary to decide. But does that mean it should be subject to public referendum?
And then there are concerns about how our every move is now caught on someone’s camera, the issue of public surveillance. Body cams significantly add to this body of public surveillance, particularly in light of license plate and facial capture.
Activists and police officials regularly tout the acquisition of body cameras as a key step toward reform, but many people are still skeptical, believing the devices could fail to prompt meaningful change and even make certain issues worse.
“There is concern that body cameras can be misused, are going to provide more ammunition in court for prosecution, rather than accountability for law enforcement themselves,” said Kayyali. “There is concern that they are really creating pervasive surveillance.”
Ironically, the concern for the public’s right to know, for accountability and transparency, exacerbates the problems with pervasive surveillance, which is a violation of individual privacy. It’s not that each concern isn’t valid, but that it will prove impossible to accommodate every legitimate concern. Conflicts happen, and we’re usually left to hash them out in the context of particular scenarios which favor one over another. Change the scenario and the relative importance of the concern changes with it.
Which concerns should prevail as a matter of public policy, and who makes the decision, raise a great many problems. The point is that decisions about these difficult questions can’t be thoughtfully made in the absence of consideration of all the relevant arguments. And then there is the law of unintended consequences, which will bite us in the butt no matter what choice is made. No, this isn’t easy. Not at all.