The company formerly known as Taser announced last week it’s offering free body cameras to every police officer in the United States. The one-year trial is likely to dramatically increase the number of body cameras used in law enforcement across the country. But citizens should be skeptical. Taxpayers might not have to pay directly for the cameras, now manufactured under the name Axon, but the devices will still come with significant costs, both to police and the communities they serve, as long as rules governing the cameras’ use don’t exist.
Body cameras aren’t a cure-all for police misconduct, but they can reduce the use of force and the abuse of police powers. They’re a tool for accountability, not a magic potion to fix community-police relations, and like any tool they need to be used properly. Without effective guidelines and community input, body cameras could fall short of the goal of enhancing accountability and, instead, actually decrease trust in police.
For example, when police haven’t recorded at critical moments or have failed to disclose footage, it’s led to serious backlash. And without proper rules, deploying police body cameras en masse threatens to create a pervasive surveillance tool and turn what is supposed to be a check on police into a worrisome increase in police power.
Unfortunately, as an analysis from the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and Upturn shows, police departments that receive federal funding have some of the least effective policies on issues ranging from privacy to accountability to public input. Departments that get cameras at a discount appear to spend less time considering their impact on all relevant stakeholders and planning accordingly, an unsurprising but still serious development. And now that Axon has entirely eliminated the cost of body cameras, that problem will escalate.
Before police departments begin using body cameras, it’s critical that they first devote serious effort into setting guidelines that will ensure these devices serve their intended purpose, and get input from affected communities. At my organization, the Constitution Project, our Committee on Policing Reform recently released a report that reflects a consensus set of recommendations from civil liberties advocates, former law enforcement officers, and former military officers. Hopefully these suggestions can help law enforcement address some of the most pressing and difficult questions they face in implementing body camera programs.
The most fundamental question with body cameras is, when should they be recording? Studies show that in order to avoid missing events that should be recorded, it’s best to offer clean-cut rules rather than looser, discretion-based standards, and to have clear and strict policies that cameras should be on whenever officers are interacting with the public or engaged in a police action. That said, civilians should know when cameras are on and have the opportunity to opt-out. This is key both for protecting individual privacy and in supporting law enforcement investigations, where officers often speak to victims and witnesses in sensitive situations where individuals don’t want to be recorded.
Another pressing question: When should footage be available to the public? Last year, after Keith Lamont Scott was fatally shot by police in Charleston, South Carolina, body camera footage captured the incident, but it was withheld from the public for days, creating a backlash and intensifying the controversy. This shows that using cameras but depriving the public of access to what the cameras record can backfire and actually degrade police-community relations. Unfortunately, many states have passed problematic laws that severely curtail public access, and sometimes even limit access to the footage by the individuals on camera seeking to file a complaint.
However, while providing some public access seems essential, it’s also important to safeguard individual privacy—and that means redacting personally revealing footage unless the subject of an interaction authorizes its release. Departments not equipped to review thousands of hours of video have faced problems with commercial and spam requests, sometimes conducted for the express purpose of overwhelming departments, that in no way advance the public interest.
States like Washington are taking the lead by creating laws that provide access, incorporate privacy protections, and include a formal process to prevent departments from being overwhelmed by access requests. Law enforcement departments that consider adopting a body camera program—along with other state legislatures—should look to Washington’s law and strive to create a similarly balanced system.
Another question that looms large: How to effectively regulate body cameras equipped with facial recognition technology? Facial recognition may still seem like Hollywood dystopia, but Axon plans to incorporate the capability into its cameras in the near future.
There is certainly a role for facial recognition in body cameras—it’s hard to imagine objections to using such technology to locate missing children or identify truly dangerous fugitives at large. But without limitations, these combined technologies could constitute an unprecedented threat to privacy and civil liberties and could mark the end of anonymity. Unchecked, they could be used for pervasive location tracking, or for identifying and cataloging participants at religious ceremonies, political rallies, or protests. Even if such abuse does not occur, the mere threat of it could chill participation in activities fundamental to democratic society.
If facial recognition is coming to body cameras, it should come with appropriate safeguards, like requiring police to get a warrant before using it, as many experts including criminal justice scholars and former law enforcement officers have recommended. Some communities might decide that the risk isn’t worth the reward, and, as Oregon did recently, prohibit the use of facial recognition entirely.
The Axon announcement further solidifies the fact that the overarching question for body cameras is not, “should police have them?” but rather, “since police are going to have them, how should they be used?” It’s critical for both law enforcement and the communities they serve that departments, citizens, and lawmakers tackle the tough questions about body cameras and how to set effective guidelines, and that they begin doing so now.
Go Back to Top. Skip To: Start of Article.