Thinking About Police Use of Body Cameras

May 13, 2015

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The deaths of citizens caused by law enforcement in areas such as Toronto, Ontario and Ferguson, Missouri have brought to light serious concerns about front-line police accountability. In many situations, citizens and police officers engage in a he-said, she-said game, often in the absence of strong evidence to support a fully logical narrative as to what actually happened. This may be exacerbated by systemic discrimination in some jurisdictions, and often weak police accountability mechanisms.

To rectify this, many jurisdictions—including Toronto—are launching pilot projects to test the feasibility and appropriateness of police body cameras. As body cameras are inherently invasive, the nuances of day-to-day law enforcement operations cannot be fully contextualized and regulated until this project is launched. However, there are already some foreseeable benefits and risks associated with their adoption.

If employed with caution and discretion, the body cameras could provide greater transparency for citizens and law enforcement alike.  Of especially great importance is the body cameras’ potential to decrease the number of complaints against, and use of force by, law enforcement.

Due to the technology’s rapid enhancement, policy and legal considerations must maintain the same pace and complexity to ensure the protection of citizens’ privacy rights.

The Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada has made several recommendations for protecting citizens if the technology is implemented. The recommendations include but are not limited to strict retention, encryption and deletion of recordings; blurring the faces of those not involved; and recording continuously versus intermittently.

Law enforcement is legally responsible for the protection of personal information from unauthorized access or use, disclosure, copying, modification and destruction. Safeguarding the recordings should  include measures such as storing them on a secure server after encryption and deleting them after an established amount of time; allowing the viewing of them on a need-to-know basis only; and  implementing an audit trail to ensure that they have not been tampered with or inappropriately accessed.

The Supreme Court has emphasized that a person does not forfeit his or her right to privacy, including anonymity, by simply appearing in public. Both in public and in private dwellings, law enforcement must cite their lawful authority to collect personal information under personal information protection statutes. Mandated purposes and activities must be identified if body cameras are to be worn.

If body cameras are to be adopted, it has been strongly advised that law enforcement informs the public of officers wearing the cameras. Further, they should be advised that their actions and words may be recorded when interacting with, or in the vicinity of, law enforcement officers.

Continuous recording for general practice may seem preferable at first glance, since the footage is unedited and law enforcement officers cannot manipulate the content. Intermittent recording is likely the preferable option from a privacy perspective however, as less personal information is collected this way. If this approach is adopted, strict criteria must be applied for turning the cameras on and off, and determining whether officers can turn them on and off themselves or have it done remotely.

It is important to note that there are considerable technical limitations of body camera technology.  An incident may not be captured in its entirety; sound recordings may have background noise or be incomplete; or human error could compromise the utility of the recordings, especially if admitted to a court of law.

Public knowledge of the cameras can be enhanced through social media campaigns, local media and law enforcement websites. Most importantly, if the technology is implemented, members of the public should be made aware of when and why they are being recorded, under what circumstances and authority, and who can be contacted if there are questions or concerns about camera use.