Privacy Concerns: Should Police Body Cameras Ever Be Turned Off?

Most Departments Offer Discretion To Protect Witnesses & Victims

Dave Debo
May 12, 2017 - 6:55 am

US Dept. of Justice Photo


The Black Rock shooting and confusion over whether suspect Jose Hernandez-Rossy was armed has given rise to many calls for Buffalo Police to have body cameras, but a range of practical and privacy concerns make their use a lot more complicated than just clipping the  the equipment to the outside of an officer's uniform and rolling the video tape. 

"There certainly is an instruction period, and then there's education on when you should and when you shouldn't use it," says NFTA Chief of Police George Gast, whose department was the first in the area to deploy body cameras.

At the NFTA, as in most departments nationwide, officers choose when to activate the camera to address privacy concerns.  

" You have to be careful when you are inside somebody's house, (aware of) what you are taking inside somebody's house," Gast says, adding that most of the privacy concerns can be addressed by clamping down on access to the video, making sure it is only ever released publicly as evidence in a court proceeding. 

There is also the issue of witness protection in places where the "no snitch" policy keeps many from cooperating with police. 

 "Crime victims (especially victims of rape,  or abuse)  could be caught on camera.... along with witnesses who are concerned about retaliation if seen cooperating with police," the American Civil Liberties Union said in a white paper on the use of body cameras nationwide.

Their report (read it here) says use of the cameras is generally beneficial but must strike a delicate balance:   You don't want officers shutting them off to hide bad behavior, but you don't want constant surveillance and the possibility that the camera invades where it shouldn't.

To balance privacy concerns with the benefits of having more public accountability for individual officers, the ACLU  says some departments nationwide have chosen to use equipment with automatic on triggers such as certain motions, raised voices or sirens.

"Ours are not that way, Ours have to be activated by the officer," Gast says. Later this year the NFTA  will begin adding dashboard cameras to some of their patrol vehicles and he says they will include automatic activation whenever a car's lights and sirens come on. 

In a lengthy report on the use of body cameras. the  US Department of Justice has instructed departments to take a strict approach, leaning more toward having cameras always on,

The issue with perhaps the greatest privacy implications is deciding which types of encounters and activities officers should record. Should officers be required to record every interaction with a member of the public? Or are there some situations in which recording should be discretionary or prohibited? One approach is to require officers to record all encounters with the public. This would require officers to activate their cameras not only during calls for service or other law enforcement-related encounters but also during informal conversations with members of the public (e.g., a person asking an officer for directions or an officer stopping into a store and engaging in casual conversation with the owner). This is the approach advocated by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which stated in a report released in October 2013, “If a police department is to place its cameras under officer control, then it must put in place tightly effective means of limiting officers’ ability to choose which encounters to record.

 But the DOJ also says that some departments have had success by visibly shutting cameras off  when needed " These agencies limit body-worn camera recordings to calls for service and law enforcement-related contacts, rather than recording every encounter with the public, so that officers do not feel compelled to record the kinds of casual conversations that are central to building informal relationships within the community," the report said 

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