Washington, D.C., police began wearing body cameras in a new pilot program that started October 1. They will test five camera modes in all seven police districts, in school security and special operations divisions.
Some will mount to a D.C. police officer’s collar or to the front of the officer’s shirt. Another model will be mounted to an eyeglass frame. But all will be ready to record the movements of 165 police officers as they interact with the public every day.
To help increase public trust between police officers and the city residents they are sworn to protect, District officers will begin wearing on-body cameras next week as they work. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier hopes to expand the pilot program to each of her department’s thousands of patrol officers in the coming years.
Many complaints, she said, include multiple witness accounts that must be collected and reconciled by department personnel. “Now we’ll have a video,” Lanier said. “This gives us that independent, unbiased witness. . . . This will make our officers safer. It will make our department more transparent. It will reduce the amount of time supervisors have to spend investigating allegations.
Under departmental policy described by Lanier on Wednesday, officers will be required to turn on the camera as soon as they receive a call for service or other request for assistance and will leave the camera rolling until they finish the call. Video that is not retained for a criminal or administrative investigation will be deleted after 90 days, Lanier said.
Questions remain about malfunctions as police have the ability to turn the devices on and off when they choose. This renders the devices useless for oversight when they can “malfunction” at will.
Their use has also sparked privacy concerns.
The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and the Los Angeles Police Department, along with police in New York, Chicago and Washington, have launched pilot programs to test cameras for wider deployment.
But equipping police with such devices also raises new and unsettled issues over privacy at a time when many Americans have been critical of the kind of powerful government surveillance measures that technology has made possible.
For many departments, questions remain about when officers should be allowed to turn off such cameras — especially in cases involving domestic violence or rape victims — and the extent to which video could be made public.
Video from dashboard cameras in police cars, a more widely used technology, has long been exploited for entertainment purposes. Internet users have posted dash-cam videos of arrests of naked women to YouTube, and TMZ sometimes obtains police videos of athletes and celebrities during minor or embarrassing traffic stops, turning officers into unwitting paparazzi.
Officers wearing body cameras could extend that public eye into living rooms or bedrooms, should a call require them to enter a private home.
A recent federal survey of 63 law enforcement agencies using body cameras said nearly a third of the agencies had no written policy on the devices. (It is not known how many agencies overall currently use body cameras.)
For that reason, experts and privacy advocates have encouraged departments to adopt policies that include allowing victims and reluctant witnesses to be filmed only with their consent.
The newly released federal report also suggests that departments should clearly outline policies for how long they will keep video recordings before deletion; 60- or 90-day holding periods are common, unless the video is used as criminal evidence or has been flagged in a complaint.
Should police wear body cameras? Absolutely. Should they have the ability to turn them off? Not a chance. If you want the program to be effective, the control of footage should never be in the hands of the police. Anyone involved in being recorded should also have the ability to request a copy of the footage for a low and reasonable fee.
Other police departments that have begun wearing body cameras this month include New York City.