Body cameras are only as good as the policies and practices behind them

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A San Diego police officer was recently caught giving false testimony in the case of a homeless man he cited for sleeping in a vehicle. A San Diego police officer was recently caught giving false testimony in the case of a homeless man he cited for sleeping in a vehicle. The evidence used to prove the officer was not telling the truth was captured by his own body-worn camera during the incident two years ago. But the footage was not provided to the homeless man’s defense attorney until after the conviction was appealed earlier this year. What the case demonstrates is that body-worn cameras are no panacea when it comes to keeping police officers honest. These systems are only as good as the department policies and practices governing their use.

Police body cameras can be an effective tool for deterring both officer and civilian misconduct, but they must be used according to publicly-debated and approved policies that ensure police accountability and transparency. The policies must also protect privacy and allow public access to video records. A growing number of law enforcement agencies in San Diego County and across the nation are adopting or considering the use of body cameras. Recent surveys, suggest that about 25 percent of the nation’s 17,000 police agencies were using them, with fully 80 percent of agencies evaluating the technology. The ACLU has a model policy on its website that requires the cameras be activated whenever a law enforcement officer is responding to a call for service and that the officer notify any person he or she encounters that they are being recorded.When used properly, body camera videos can provide objective evidence to help resolve civilian complaints against police without significantly infringing on people’s privacy. Even so, video does not always capture the full story, nor will the video record of an isolated incident resolve every concern we have about how our communities are policed.

Many policing issues that need to be addressed — such as racial profiling, use of force, transparency in officer discipline, and strong oversight and accountability mechanisms — require us to look beyond isolated incidents to systems and patterns. Body cameras can improve how police officers do their jobs, but they are only as effective as the policies that govern their use.

The objective records they provide can help to build public trust, but they are no substitute meaningful reform. In the case of the homeless San Diego man, the officer failed to note on the citation that the incident was recorded, even though it was required by SDPD policy, according to The Voice of San Diego, which first reported the story in August. The existence of the video was not revealed until the case was appealed and the city Attorney’s Office reviewed the case. Only then, the city filed a motion to vacate the homeless man’s conviction in July saying “the video undermines the officer’s credibility.” With the right policies in place and officers that follow them, body cameras can be a win-win for all.

To read an ACLU white paper on body worn cameras and our policy recommendations, visit www.aclu.org

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