Public Safety & Justice

Survey: Almost All Police Departments Plan to Use Body Cameras

Even though every cop will likely wear a recording device in the not-too-distant future, a new report reveals there's little consensus about how to use them.
by | January 26, 2016
A body camera is attached to the uniform of a Whitestown, Ind., police officer. (AP/Darron Cummings)

Nearly every large police department in a new nationwide survey said it plans to move forward with body-worn cameras, with 95 percent either committed to body cameras or having completed their implementation. But as body cameras become more common, police will face a host of policy issues they must sort out.

The survey, conducted by the Major Cities Chiefs Association and Major County Sheriffs' Association, asked 70 law enforcement agencies around the country about their plans for implementing body-worn recording devices. Results of the survey shed light on the different policy approaches police are taking.

So far, only 18 percent of agencies considered their body cameras “fully operational” last year. About half of the agencies surveyed had started or completed pilot programs, and just 5 percent indicated that they either don't intend to implement body cameras or chose not to do so after completing pilot programs.

The police chiefs who don't plan on adopting the cameras cite privacy concerns or fears that the footage could be posted publicly online, said David Roberts, a program manager with the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), at a conference in Washington on Thursday. But those holdouts aren't likely to remain much longer, he said. “Ultimately, they’re going to need to adopt it. Juries, prosecutors and the courts will demand it.”

For the departments that are bringing in cameras, the move raises a number of important policy questions.

One of the first that must be answered is when to turn the cameras on. Rules vary; many agencies won't record inside private homes or under other specific circumstances, such as interviews with sexual assault victims. Until fairly recently, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) called for police to record all public encounters, but that stance has shifted to be more in line with police departments' views. The ACLU's now advocates that police activate cameras only when responding to calls for service or any other “law enforcement or investigative encounter between a law enforcement officer and member of the public,” with some exceptions.

Partially because of the varying policies dictating when officers have to turn on their cameras, some agencies are recording far more footage than others. In just under half of agencies surveyed (49 percent), officers record an average of three or fewer hours of video per day. About 10 percent of departments estimated their officers record four to six hours of video per day, and only 3 percent reported an average of seven or more hours per day. Perhaps more notable is that nearly 38 percent of agencies indicated they hadn't yet determined how many hours of video officers were recording, suggesting they may be struggling to track all the footage.

Police departments are also employing different rules about whether officers have to notify people when they’re being recorded. Eleven states have some form of two-party consent laws, requiring cops to ask citizens’ permission to record them -- although some state legislatures have agreed to waive requirements for police cameras.

Another important policy decision police are grappling with is how long they’ll retain the footage. It’s a safe assumption that most departments would prefer to keep it for longer, but because of the cost of data storage, that's just not feasible, said Jeff Gould, president of SaveGov.org, an online forum of IT experts.

“I think the emerging consensus is that you want to keep it probably more than 90 days, but less than five years,” said Gould.

But if a piece of video is considered evidence in a criminal case, police must retain it longer than other recorded interactions. Approximately 70 percent of agencies surveyed keep video that's considered evidence for longer than 180 days. For video not considered evidence, about a third of agencies reported retaining footage for no longer than 90 days, while another 31 percent keep such video for more than 180 days.

Once body camera programs are implemented, police departments usually grant other public agencies access to their video systems. Three-quarters of departments surveyed allow their internal affairs units access; 70 percent provide access to district attorneys' offices; and 45 percent grant access to city attorneys’ offices.

Responding to public records requests for camera footage has posed problems for some departments. Agencies in some states, such as Washington, adhere to broad open records laws, while a few others have declined to release any footage to the public at all. The survey found about 72 percent of agencies are required to provide footage in response to records requests. Just under 9 percent are exempt, and the remaining 18 percent reported they hadn’t yet determined or didn’t know their policy.

The vast majority of agencies indicated that they planned to redact videos released to the public. Gould said he expects all departments to eventually redact released videos. Software makes it possible to automate much of the redaction process, but it still requires some additional time from police personnel.

A separate effort by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a coalition of different advocacy groups, is tracking implementation of recommended body camera polices across 25 police departments.

One recommendation calls for policies specifying when officers must record and requires “concrete justifications” from officers not recording events. Most agencies reviewed adhere to this recommendation, but at least six lack requirements for officers to justify any failure to record. Only one agency reviewed has adopted another recommended policy that explicitly permits individuals filing police misconduct complaints to view all relevant video recordings.

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