New York Times: The Real Problem With Police Video

A Chicago police officer shot and killed a teenager named Laquan McDonald in October of last year, but most of us learned about Mr. McDonald only last week, after a judge ordered the release of police video footage of his death. That is also when prosecutors finally brought first-degree murder charges against the officer. Clearly, such footage has considerable power.

But while protesters have criticized the delayed response to the shooting, no one seems to be asking a more fundamental question: Why were the police in control of the footage in the first place?

Over the past year, as we have seen video after video of police officers killing civilians, many people have argued that greater use of cameras — in particular, police-worn body cameras — could help curb police abuse and mend police-community relations. In May, Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch, in announcing a Justice Department body-camera pilot program, argued that such cameras “hold tremendous promise for enhancing transparency, promoting accountability, and advancing public safety for law enforcement officers and the communities they serve.”

But as currently implemented, body camera programs in the United States too often fail to serve those goals because the police own and control the footage. This is the fox guarding the henhouse. Not only can the police retain footage that they would rather not release; they can also use it for purposes that have nothing to do with transparency and accountability, such as mass surveillance. Until control of this footage is taken away from law enforcement and vested in a neutral third party, with equal access for all interested parties, body cameras will further empower the very party they were designed to check.

About a third of police departments in the United States have started to use body cameras, and they typically have almost complete control over the programs. Police departments decide when cameras should be rolling, how long the footage is stored, who gets to see it and how it can be used in the future. Individual officers operate the record button, and their supervisors decide what happens when those officers fail to comply with the department’s recording policy (usually, not much).

In Albuquerque, where the police have a body-camera program, a Justice Department investigation found that officers repeatedly failed to record uses of force against civilians, even when they had a clear opportunity to do so. This violated department policy, but very few of the officers were reprimanded.

Even when officers do record uses of force, it is often difficult, if not impossible, for anyone outside law enforcement to obtain the footage unless a court orders its release. In San Diego, the Police Department, in response to public records requests, has repeatedly declined to release video of police shootings, despite previous promises to do so.

In New York, the Police Department unilaterally instituted a body camera program earlier this year. The police own all the videos, and there is no mechanism for civilians to gain access to them. A written policy outlining the program lists its first goal as officer safety; the second is to gather evidence against criminal defendants. Nowhere does it mention transparency, accountability or civilian safety.

We can do better. All body-camera footage, from the moment it is uploaded until it is deleted, should be managed by an impartial third party, either private or government-run.

Third-party management should not be any more expensive or complicated than police management. Data-storage companies are inherently better equipped for the task, and police departments would not have to pay officers overtime for logging data or learning to use new software. In fact, many police departments already use third-party vendors to help manage body-camera footage. But even if it were more costly or complicated, that would be a cost worth paying. If we cannot afford to implement body cameras properly, then we cannot afford body cameras.

In addition to bringing greater transparency and accountability to policing, third-party management of body-camera footage would actually benefit the police. Video footage would be more credible in the public eye; police officers wouldn’t be suspected of doctoring footage after every technical glitch. It would also protect individual officers, especially those, such as whistle-blowers and union activists, who had reason to fear that supervisors might comb through their footage for any minor infraction to use against them.

Third-party administration would protect privacy rights, too. Civil libertarians could sleep easier knowing that a large cache of mass surveillance was in neutral hands.

If we want these body camera programs to serve their intended purpose, we must insist on equal access to footage for all interested parties. There is no legitimate reason to give the police exclusive control, and there are many good reasons not to. A fair program would help level the playing field and would promote mutual trust, so that the police would no longer be automatically trusted in the courtroom and mistrusted on the street. But a body-camera program warped by law enforcement interests does the opposite. It’s worse than no program at all.

By Sarah Lustbader

Read the article here.