The great police body-cam debate

In the near future, the police officers patrolling American city streets will wear point-of-view cameras recording every interaction between law enforcement and the public—at least, circumstances over the last several months certainly appear to be leading the country in that direction.

Support for on-officer cameras, better known as “body cams,” has skyrocketed along side reports of police brutality throughout the U.S. But privacy advocates are anxious over the prospect of a new form of government surveillance. The cameras will, after all, follow the officers wherever they go, including inside the homes of potentially millions of American citizens.

Is the video secure? How long should it be stored? And who will hold the key?

At the beginning of 2015, Arizona-based Taser International, a leading U.S. manufacturer of law enforcement technology best known for its line of electroshock guns, announced that it had sold body cameras to more than 2,500 U.S. police agencies. A new video file is uploaded to its subscription-based cloud hosting service every four seconds, according to Taser. 

In the nation’s capital, 200 police officers are currently outfitted with the device as part of a pilot program. Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser said on Tuesday that she intends to expand the program to include 3,000 officers. In January, Los Angeles announced plans to purchase 8,000 units. San Diego currently has 600 officers equipped and plans to outfit 400 more by year’s end. And Seattle’s police department recently concluded a 90-day test of Taser’s device.

In September, New York City began testing 60 on-officer cameras in five high-crime precincts. Last week, two city council members called for expansion of the program, citing the recent killing of Walter Scott, an unarmed black man who was apparently shot in the back without cause by a South Carolina police officer.

“Had a bystander not been there to film Saturday’s shooting, we may have never known the truth behind Walter Scott’s death,” Council Members Vanessa Gibson and Jumaane Williams wrote in an op-ed for the New York Daily News. “It is a tragic truth that even clear video may not result in justice, but the incident clearly indicates that police interactions must have video surveillance.”

To mitigate the substantial cost of buying body cameras for thousands of new police officers, President Obama has proposed a three-year, $263 million investment package that would expand law enforcement training and resources. The plan, which requires congressional approval, allocates $75 million of the funding for reimbursing communities half the cost of purchasing the cameras.

The great body-cam balancing act

Thousands of cops are patrolling the streets with cameras—now what?

Ideally, the result is a decline in use-of-force incidents across the board. Erroneous complaints against officers are quickly dismissed. Encounters between police and citizens are transparent and both are held accountable for their actions. Everybody feels a little bit safer knowing their constitutional rights are ensured by the impartial nature of the footage.

But now there are servers loaded with terabytes of data—with the faces of victims, the interiors of homes, and the benign confrontations between officers and innocent civilians. Important questions arise from this reality: Is the video secure? How long should it be stored? And who will hold the key? Surely, the public and the media cannot be given unfettered access to these databases. But if the purpose is to capture and bring to light incidents of police brutality, such as the Walter Scott killing, a provision for disclosure must be resolved. So who will draw the line?

For years, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has been at the forefront of this debate. The group is uniquely positioned to comment because, as it so happens, they represents both sides. That is, among their clients are both victims of police brutality and victims of privacy invasion. Chad Marlow, an ACLU advocacy and policy counsel, says the challenge has been to examine the competing interests and find a real-world balance.

“If we were just a privacy organization, we would be saying ‘No cameras at all; we’re completely opposed to cameras,'” Marlow said in a phone interview. “And if we were just focused in on police brutality, we’d say, ‘Every single cop has to have them,’”

According to Marlow, there are three types of videos which should flagged and maintained by the police. “Generally speaking, it’s anything that involves the use of force, anything that leads to an arrest, or any encounter with just the subject of a formal or informal compliant,” he said. 

“Once the issue exploded, my phone started ringing off the hook.”

However, “it may be appropriate to flag videos that police want to just keep internally for educational purposes, for training purposes,” he continued. “If we can use these videos and let police view them privately and see what might happen in the real world and learn how to react better, that would be a huge benefit as well.”

In October 2013, before the issue was widely discussed in the press, ACLU Senior Policy Analyst Jay Stanley published a white paper to clarify his organization’s position on the use of on-police cameras. “Although we generally take a dim view of the proliferation of surveillance cameras in American life,” he wrote, “police on-body cameras are different because of their potential to serve as a check against the abuse of power by police officers.”

Addressing the privacy threat, Stanley offered three suggestions that he said police departments should follow at the point of recording. First, the devices should only be worn by uniformed officers, except in circumstances involving SWAT raids or other instances when use of force is likely. (In those cases, Stanley suggests, non-uniformed officers should wear them as well.) Second, officers should notify people that they’re being recorded. “One possibility departments might consider is for officers to wear an easily visible pin or sticker saying ‘lapel camera in operation’ or words to that effect,” he wrote. Lastly, the devices should never be used to “surreptitiously gather intelligence information based on First Amendment protected speech, associations, or religion.”

When entering a home, Stanley suggested, officers should be required to provide clear notice that a camera is active. Under “non-exigent circumstances,” residents should potentially be able to request that the camera be disabled. Conversely, the devices should never be disabled during “SWAT raids and similar police actions.”

“Once the issue exploded, my phone started ringing off the hook,” Stanley said in a phone interview. Before the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., last year, his policy paper was one of the few documents online addressing the numerous privacy concerns that would follow the introduction of body cameras. Now, the conversation is taking place in press daily. And lawmakers in multiple states are attempting to juggle the privacy concerns with the desire for transparency.

The FOIA problem

In Washington, Mayor Bower is pushing a blanket exemption for police footage against Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. Similarly, Florida state Sen. Chris Smith (D) of Ft. Lauderdale authored a bill to exempt from state open-records laws any video taken in a private place or involving a medical emergency or death. The bill would still allow agencies and the people filmed by police to decide who can have access to the video, according to the Tampa Bay Times.

“This is a tricky balance between open government and privacy,” said Stanley, who is against the idea of blanket FOIA exemption. Instead, he advises that police departments implement a system to identify footage that should “presumptively be available for a public records request,” which includes incidents that result in use-of-force or a complaint against an officer. 

It’s unusual to hear the ACLU ask the government to redact something, but that’s precisely what they’re doing. Even in videos flagged because they reveal evidence of misconduct, the identities of subjects should, if feasible, be obscured by blurring out their faces or distorting the audio, the organization says. 

As for footage that’s not flagged, “it should not really be viewed ever,” according to Stanley. “It should not be subject to analytics, like facial recognition. It shouldn’t be shared. It should be kept for a period of time equal to but not much longer than the period of time people have to file a complaint against a police officer, and then it should be destroyed.”

The burgeoning body-cam industry

Two months after the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, when hundreds of protesters still lined the streets of Ferguson, Mo., Taser International CEO Patrick Smith could not contain his excitement. “We are feeling phenomenal right now,” he reportedly told investors during an October earnings call. Outfitting the country’s police force with their product, an idea thought of as “crazy five years ago,” is now “inevitable,” he said.

After years of field testing, Taser rolled out its first half-ounce “Axon” body camera in February 2012. The company reports it has since sold more than 100,000 units to police departments worldwide. Thousands more will be distributed to dozens of local agencies by year’s end.

Taser’s overall strategy has proven effective. Over the past year, its shares have rallied by more than 47 percent. In the final quarter of 2014, revenue from the Axon alone increased by more than 159 percent. Competitors fell by the wayside when the company began offering the camera at a price marginally above cost. It now competes almost solely with Vievu, a company that supplies body cameras to as many as 4,000 law enforcement agencies in 17 countries.

The police-only wearable

Like cellphones, Taser offers a base model and a premium model, which are first and second generation, respectively; the latter was developed based on feedback from officers after testing the device. The Axon Body, a “simple, single-unit camera,” costs roughly $400. For an additional $200, the more compact Axon Flex model includes “point-of-view mounts.” In other words, it attaches neatly to a pair of sunglasses.

And as with cellphones, the technology behind Taser’s body cameras will only become more powerful each year. In 2013, the Axon was limited to about two hours of filming, the company said. The latest model includes a “full shift” battery that lasts for up to 12 hours, according to the manual, and can record 4 to 12 hours of footage, depending on the bitrate. It’s cordless, contains a 130 degree wide-angle lens, and functions well in low-light. It continuously buffers, which means that it can record events 30-seconds before the officer activates the device.

It’s unusual to hear the ACLU ask the government to redact something, but that’s precisely what they’re doing. 

Marketing for Axon mostly boils down to a single selling point: On-officer cameras result in “massive savings” for police departments by dispensing with the costly litigation that generally follows allegations of abuse. The device, according to Taser, may also reduce the number of use-of-force incidents. “People on both sides of the badge stay safe when accountability is expected,” the company says, noting a reported 87.5 percent drop in complaints against officers equipped with the Axon in Rialto, Calif.

The device itself isn’t the only source of revenue for Taser. The company also offers an online service for up to $55 per month called Evidence.com. Police departments who sign a contract can upload footage to cloud storage, where it can be labelled and maintained. The software also has video editing capabilities, which can be used to blur out people’s faces or remove audio. “Your digital evidence is everywhere and piling up fast,” as the website says.

On Tuesday, Taser announced that the Mobile Police Department in Alabama had signed up for a 5-year subscription plan. It took the opportunity to reveal its new “Standard Issue Grant Program,” which offers discounts to departments that buy stun guns with their cameras. Savings may vary, of course, depending on whether or not they purchase the extended warranty. 

Photo by Joe Mabel/Flickr (CC BY SA 2.0) | Remix by Jason Reed

Dell Cameron

Dell Cameron

Dell Cameron was a reporter at the Daily Dot who covered security and politics. In 2015, he revealed the existence of an American hacker on the U.S. government's terrorist watchlist. He is a co-author of the Sabu Files, an award-nominated investigation into the FBI's use of cyber-informants. He became a staff writer at Gizmodo in 2017.