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Body-Worn Cameras

Unlike many other forms of police technology, body-worn cameras can serve both a law enforcement and a public accountability function. Body cameras worn by police can be useful for documenting police misconduct and use of force, but footage can also be used to surveil both people that police interact with and third parties who might not even realize they are being filmed. If combined with facial recognition or other technologies, thousands of police officers wearing body-worn cameras could record the words, deeds, and locations of much of the population at a given time, raising serious First and Fourth Amendment concerns.

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How Body-Worn Cameras Work

Officers wearing new body cams for the first time. Source: Houston Police Department

Body-worn cameras are small cameras which can be clipped onto a police officer’s uniform or worn as a headset and turned on to record video and audio of law enforcement encounters with the public. The video is often saved with time and date stamps and GPS coordinates. Some body cameras offer real-time video streaming. Some cameras offer Bluetooth trigger options for automatic recording. Agencies can select input that triggers body-worn cameras to automatically turn on without manual activation, such as turning on a cruiser’s lights or sirens, crash sensor activation, when the car reaches a certain speed, or when nearby dashboard cameras or body cameras are switched on. A new wireless holster sensor can alert body cameras when a gun is drawn. Some body-worn cameras provide 30 seconds of sound-free video footage from before the time the camera officially starts recording. Footage is uploaded to external databases maintained by police agencies or to third party vendors. 

What Kinds of Data Body-Worn Cameras Collect

When police turn on body-worn cameras, they collect video and audio footage of people. Some also include date and time stamps as well as GPS coordinates. The footage often captures faces, which could potentially be analyzed by face recognition technology.  Some body camera systems allow the officer to add metadata tags to the footage in the field using a tablet. 

How Law Enforcement Uses Body-Worn Cameras

 Police can collect video footage when they decide to stop and frisk someone, search property, conduct a car stop or a chase, conduct a witness interview, issue a summons, or make an arrest. Since body-worn camera footage collects video and audio of people, images of their faces can be digitized and used for facial recognition.

 In 2016, The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights issued a detailed scorecard comparing the wide variations in body-worn camera practices across the county. Some police departments make their policies easily accessible, but others do not. Some limit officer discretion on when they should and should not record, while others do not. Some address personal privacy concerns, prohibit pre-report viewing by officers, limit retention of footage, protect the footage from tampering and misuse, allow individuals filing complaints to access footage, or limit use of biometric technologies such as facial recognition. 

According to the data, 43 of 68 police departments in major cities have body-worn camera programs with policies in place, with 24 making them easily and publicly available on their department websites. At least five departments—Chicago, Cincinnati, Las Vegas, Parker (Colorado) and Washington, D.C.—provide the individuals who were recorded access to the footage. At least six departments prohibit officers from reviewing footage before filing initial written incident reports for some critical incidents, like officer shootings. Baltimore, Baltimore County, Boston, Cincinnati, Montgomery County, and Parker limit the use of biometric technologies with camera footage. 

Who Sells Body-Worn Camera Technology 

Many police departments use body-worn cameras made by Axon (formerly Taser), which provides free cameras and sells data storage services. Other vendors include Aventura, Black Mamba, BrickHouse Security, Brimtek, COBAN, Data911, DEI, Digital Ally, FlyWIRE, Global Justice, GoPro, HauteSpot, HD Protech, Kustom Signals, L-3 Mobile-Vision, Law Systems, Marantz Professional, Martel, Motorola, Panasonic, Patrol Eyes, Paul Conway, Pinnacle, PRG, Primal USA, Utility Inc., PRO-VISION, Reveal Media, Safety Innovations, Safety Vision, Titan, Utility, VIEVU, VP360, WatchGuard, WOLFCOM, Zepcam, and Zetronix. 

In addition to selling body cameras, some vendors also provide data storage for the footage. For example, body-worn camera maker VIEVU owns the cloud-based service VERIPATROL, and Axon owns the cloud-based digital evidence management company Evidence.com. Some companies, such as Utility Inc. and Motorola, partner with Amazon Web Services for storage of body camera footage. 

Some body-worn camera providers, such as Axon, ask police departments to sign contracts permitting the footage to be stored in a proprietary system. Attorneys for criminal defendants may have to agree with Axon’s restrictive terms of service to access documents produced in judicially mandated discovery. 

Threats Posed by Body-Worn Cameras

When police enter a citizen’s home with a body-worn camera, they may pick up video and audio footage of victims of domestic violence or sexual assault. Video and audio records may capture footage of children or people in various states of undress. Some police departments have policies that protect vulnerable individuals from being recorded without their informed consent, while others offer only vague guidance on personal privacy issues. Some policies don’t address these concerns at all. 

Although body-worn cameras can be used to provide police accountability and oversight, body-worn cameras also have the potential to systematically surveil people engaging in protected speech or associations or to track the public at large. A particularly concerning possibility is that of body-worn cameras being subject to biometric analysis, such as facial recognition. A federally funded market survey stated that vendors are developing and fine-tuning this technology.

Footage can be saved for years, absent appropriate data retention policies. Conversely, retention policies should be long enough (weeks) to allow victims or the public to access videos involved in use of force incidents, misconduct, or other complaints. Often, police can immediately access video but the recorded civilians (and their attorneys) cannot. For example, in State vs. Robinson, the court held that New Jersey state law did not require production of existing body-worn camera footage at a pre-trial hearing. 

The New York Times created an excellent explainer showing how a narrative may be interpreted differently depending on the perspective of the footage (e.g. first-person police body-camera footage vs. cell phone footage recorded by a third party) and whether the footage contains audio. 

Body-worn camera footage from a 2015 protest Source: Seattle Police Department

Additionally, police have the discretion to release portions of video selectively and at specific times as a public relations strategy to insulate themselves from claims of misconduct. This has been done with surveillance footage. For example, after unarmed black teenager Michael Brown was fatally shot by a white Ferguson police officer, the Ferguson Police Chief released a surveillance video showing the teen appearing to leave a store with an unpurchased box of cigarillos. Later it was revealed that the officer who shot Michael Brown was unaware of the earlier incident. 

If police can decide which encounters to record and when to turn off cameras, this can circumvent the oversight the cameras are meant to provide. For example, when police are given discretion over when to turn on body-worn cameras, they often neglect to do so. Even when police are required to use body-worn cameras for certain types of stops or encounters, compliance with these rules can be low. Failures of police to turn on their cameras during use-of-force incidents don’t always result in disciplinary action. For example, Albuquerque’s Civilian Police Oversight Agency (CPOA) found that officers violated the department’s body-worn camera recording rules more than they violated any other policy. When the CPOA sent the police chief notice of violations of the on-body camera recording policy, the chief disagreed with the agency’s conclusions and no disciplinary action was imposed.

Some body-worn camera systems allow police to edit or delete stored footage. This feature allegedly has been used to destroy evidence of police misconduct. For example, surveillance video in which police officers were accused of beating a University of Maryland student in 2010  was not immediately turned over to attorneys in response to a subpoena, and a portion of the video was later discovered missing. There are other incidents in Utah and in Texas where footage was apparently never taken.

Even when footage is not deleted or tampered with, many police departments allow officers to review footage before making written reports or talking to investigators. This gives officers the chance to tailor their stories to the video evidence, and even help some officers to lie in a way consistent with the video. It also makes it possible for police to engage in a fishing expedition about the civilians they stop, searching for additional crimes that they did not previously detect. Meanwhile, civilians who allege public misconduct or who are accused of a crime typically cannot view the footage before making their initial statements about the episode to police investigators. 

EFF’s Work on Body-worn Cameras 

We have consistently opposed body-worn camera rules that fail to protect privacy and advance police accountability. In 2015, we opposed LAPD’s policies for body-worn cameras. We also weighed in on state legislation, including opposing California’s A.B. 1940, which would have allowed officers to view footage before writing their statements. In 2017, along with the ACLU of California and the Bay Area chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, we sent a letter to the Santa Clara County Board with suggestions on ways to improve their proposed policy for the Sheriff’s use of body-worn cameras.

For More Information

Body-worn Cameras Laws Database (National Conference of State Legislatures) 

Body-worn Camera Scorecard (The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights)  

Policing Body Cameras: Policies and Procedures to Safeguard the Rights of the Accused (National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers) 

Police Body-mounted Cameras with Right Policies in Place, A Win for All (ACLU)

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