When I’m not writing scurrilous things for Peach Pundit, I serve on the city council of Pine Lake, population 750 excluding geese. I “won” a seat last year. My $599-a-year job requirements include saying “it’s my fault” with grace, being called names on Facebook and learning more about waterfowl excrement than anyone should have to know.
But the role carries one extraordinarily important responsibility. The city has a police force. It’s tiny — the equivalent of four full time police officers. But four officers is still an actual police force, with all the responsibilities associated with armed government agents. I help set policy for those officers.
President Obama proposed $263 million in federal funding yesterday for police body cameras, a 50 percent match for 50,000 cameras over three years. Pine Lake has already budgeted for body cameras for all of our police officers, starting early next year. We were planning to do so before the president’s proposal. But we’ve been debating policy for how those cameras should be used since early this year. We’re aware that cameras without sound rules for their use may actually cause more problems for us than they solve.
Policy kinks appear to be holding up deployment of police body cameras all over the country, despite impressions from a study in a California town showing a reduction in police complaints and use of force when implemented. Police departments tend to be supportive of body cameras in spirit, but in practice there has been pushback around technical, administrative and legal issues.
Pine Lake is cheap. We have to be. We just don’t have the money to buy our way out of some of these issues with better technology. So we’ve had to consider the policy issues at stake more carefully than other municipalities might, and in that we may learn lessons others will miss.
Here’s some of what we’re wrestling with.
First and foremost, I think we need a policy that takes discretion away from a police officer when video evidence is most vital. There should be no acceptable reason, ever, that a body camera had been turned off during an arrest or while a weapon is drawn. Traffic stops should be recorded, since that’s where most public interaction takes place. Conversations with people on the street should be recorded.
Leeway of any kind under these circumstances would open up the city to charges of conveniently failing to record evidence of police abuses while recording every error made by the public. “Oh, I didn’t have time to turn on my body camera because I was too busy beating the hell out of the perp” isn’t going to fly.
I expect our own policy to require a working camera for any Pine Lake police officer to start a shift or conduct an arrest. “I guess my camera was broken” cannot be acceptable.
It might be easy enough to require cameras to be on nonstop, but as a practical matter that’s unrealistic. We can probably swing the storage costs — a gig and a half a day for four cops — but there are times when it may make sense to disable a camera. No one wants body camera footage from the bathroom. Arguably, a police officer should be able to turn off a camera when talking with a confidential informant … though that’s rare enough for Pine Lake.
Some systems allow cameras to be enabled and disabled remotely, taking discretion away from the officer. We don’t have that kind of money.
Legal opinion appears divided about the use of police body cameras on private property. Some Georgia law enforcement agencies are concerned that reviewing body camera footage taken in someone’s home would constitute a search because of the ability to sift it frame by frame for evidence. Others believe that if an officer has established a legal right to be in someone’s home — a warrant, permission, or exigence — then recordings would have the same rules as evidence in plain view.
I think there’s merit in noting the use of body cameras when obtaining a search warrant, and I think if police are negotiating with a homeowner for permission to enter, police should make their use of a camera plain. Our policies about camera use and data storage should be very public, posted on our city website.
In fact, I think police should have to wear a button that says “recording device in use” and introduce themselves to people in exactly the same way debt collectors have to start a conversation identifying themselves on the phone. “Hi. I’m officer John Smith. Before we get started, I’d like to note that I have a body camera on and recording.”
Intrusive? Uncomfortable? A bit.
The next question is how to store the recordings, and for how long. That intrusive recording is a public record, subject to the Georgia Open Records Act. I think it in the public’s interest to limit how long that recording can be held — long enough so that a defense attorney or civil litigator has enough time to discover it, but not so long as to constitute a permanent surveillance file or a target for the police equivalent of Girls Gone Wild. As a practical matter, shorter storage periods also keep costs low. We’re still arguing this one. I think 90 days, but opinions vary.
Taser allows police departments to store recordings in the cloud at Evidence.com at relatively inexpensive rates. Taser’s system also limits the power of a line officer to delete their own recordings. The device dumps directly to storage, and only a supervisor can delete recordings.
I like the access control portion of Taser’s technology. But I get a little skittish when I hear the words “cloud storage system” connected to critically-important and legally-sensitive documents. The cloud represents a loss of control. Who is to say if the FBI or NSA decides to surreptitiously subpoena all of Taser’s arrest records in some act of homeland security over-zealousness? So much for a local 90 days storage policy. Anything likely to be used in court should be duplicated in our own content management system and in off-line storage.
All of this fails if supervisors aren’t continually monitoring compliance, and if there are no teeth in the rules. How much teeth? It should be a firing offense for an officer to deliberately screw with a bodycam to avoid being recorded during an arrest or an incident … or even a traffic stop. An arrest — or any use of force — made with no recording should rise to the highest level of legal suspicion. Such things should automatically trigger a felony destruction of evidence criminal investigation as a matter of law. But that might be a problem to solve at the legislature.
Pine Lake by most accounts had a tremendous police problem 15 years ago. We used to have something like 15 full time cops, writing upwards of 40 tickets a day. (We average about two a shift today.) The police were viewed as predators, and the majority-black community surrounding the majority-white city were the prey. After protests, the city stripped the police force to its essentials, cut the number of tickets it wrote by a factor of eight and raised taxes to compensate. But the hostility lingers. I hear about it every time I’m in a public forum and I tell people where I live.
I’ve discovered that it’s all but impossible to tell people that the city is doing things right now. Pine Lake has to show people. Cameras will help, if we use them right.