The New York Times in a recent opinion page stated that “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.”
Why did it take a year for the release of the video which prompted first-degree murder charges? Perhaps it is obvious but as the New York Times states, it is because the police own the video footage recorded by most of these camera programs and, as described in the article, the body cameras.
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).
The author of the article, a staff attorney at the Bronx Defenders went on to write about the issues facing the New York Police Body Camera Program:
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.