Body Cameras Don’t Matter Unless Policies Have Teeth

Body camera

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 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.


  1. blakeage80 says:

    It appears you and your city council are thinking this out thoroughly. I dare not challenge your findings. I am curious, though, about how dogmatic you are on when the camera is turned on and it being a fireable offense to fail to do so. I am closely related to someone on a state police force that has cameras attached to their hats/helmets/heads. He said it is often difficult for an officer to remember to turn on a camera, especially in a tense circumstance. They have been trained on this, but it is one more thing to remember while trying to get a lot of other things right legally and tactically. Did the Pine Lake Council talk about this and were there any solutions offered? For the record I am pro-camera as well as it takes away so much ambiguity from a situation.

    • George Chidi says:

      We’re still talking, though I hope we’ll have this sorted out by the January council meeting. Training has been an issue. We don’t want to institute a stringent protocol for camera use without ensuring that we can train our police to meet the standard.

      That said … there’s no point in having police if they can’t meet this standard. There’s a strict protocol for drawing a service weapon, too.

  2. Noway says:

    The body cams will be able to provide unquestionable documentation of what occurs in any given situation. That is great. On that note, should the network documentation/camera footage of Michael Brown’s step-father, telling supporters to “Burn this Bi**t Down,” be used by the police to charge him with trying to incite a riot?

  3. UGAdoubledawg says:

    Forgive my lengthy post, a very long time lurker here going almost back to the beginning, but never felt as compelled to post until George’s post today. If I need to post this elsewhere, let me know or please move it to an appropriate place. I just happen to have some experiences which I thought might help inform his situation as a council member and add context to the discussion.

    I spent a number of years in law enforcement as a career, and still am a sworn officer (am in another career now). I have been a local law enforcement officer, and a state level officer. There are major legal issues posed by body cameras (and practical ones) which your lawyers have identified involved with the open records act, the necessity of removing privileged information (which will require a lot of administrative time to redact protected material), issues involved with video and audio recordings of minors without consent of parents/superior court judges, video recording in private places, etc. These are not minimal.

    There are some additional issues relating to the relationships between the community and law enforcement which may arise from forcing officers to record at practically all times which I haven’t seen presented.

    At one point, I commanded a drug task force for several years. I spent a not insignificant amount of my time engaged in what many would call “community policing”. For instance, I would regularly spend time chatting with a group of men at a local business where they gathered about the issues of the day; high school football, their children/grandchildren, politics, their churches (some were pastors others deacons), and occasionally worries about crime/drugs. Just to add context, these men were also leaders in the local African-American community and I am white. We had free ranging, sometimes several hours long, conversations which not only helped us all understand one another better but sometimes provided information needed to advance investigations or remove fugitives from the community. I can state without equivocation that these conversations absolutely would not have been as productive, or open, if I had to sit in there with a camera recording everything that was said. I know I wouldn’t have spoken freely, and I strongly suspect they would not have either. I imagine my attendance would not have been welcome at their daily gathering.

    I also was a member of a large community service organization (one like Rotary) which met at lunch. To add context, this organization had most of the white business leaders in the community as members. At our lunch table, before the program, we often had very open conversations about similar issues as I did with the group at the business. Aside from also helping everyone understand everyone’s different perspectives, information about crimes the community was concerned about was also shared. I would not have been aware of these concerns without these conversations. If I were wearing a camera, since this did occur during my working hours, once again not only would there not have been a conversation; I imagine I would have been asked to leave the organization if I were forced to record our meetings.

    Also, I investigated serious felony crimes when I was not the head of the drug task force. Serious felony investigations often involved people sharing very personal information about themselves, loved ones, and others, some might find embarrassing. I have had these people be willing to share the information, knowing that it will be used in the investigation, but also not be willing to have the statement tape recorded. It is easy to imagine that if I had walked in with a body camera recording, we never would have built a rapport and the sensitive information that sometimes was necessary for solving very serious crimes (like murder, rape, child molestation, etc.) would not have been shared.

    Finally, many times in my law enforcement career people had matters that they wanted my advice about which involved criminal activity; like concerns about a child’s drug usage, elder issues like abuse/fraud/driving concerns, spousal abuse, prescription abuse, etc., all of which needed a confidential conversation. This is an important part of effective law enforcement and is expected in a number of communities, particularly smaller ones. A camera recording these interactions would not be helpful to accommodating their needs, and likely would have been seen as offensive by those needing advice.

    I realize my experiences are not dispositive. Additionally, having conducted several criminal investigations of police misconduct which resulted in officers being sent to prison, I recognize the value that a body camera might provide in deterring or investigating criminal behavior by law enforcement. It is also important to recognize the potential costs that their indiscriminate use might pose, particularly to policy makers who have limited knowledge of what their law enforcement officers do (or should be doing) beyond traffic stops and answering 911 calls. I suspect there is probably a middle ground, where much of the benefits of the camera can be realized without the costs to the community relationships that a camera that is always recording may pose. I just don’t know exactly where that is, it is probably different in every community.

    • George Chidi says:

      Thanks for this. It helps. I wrote this to elicit exactly these kind of responses from the field, from people outside of my department’s food chain.

      I’ll respond in detail later tonight, but let me start by saying that I know quite well after years of reporting about public safety that the best kind of policing occurs with the kind of interactions you’re describing. Most of the police work the public sees is the stuff that makes the news, which is deeply reactive. A proactive police force has a connection to the community that extends beyond the gun and the badge … and now the camera.

      Within Pine Lake, for the residents of the city, we have that for the most part. But in the broader community around South Hairston and Hambrick and Rockbridge and Memorial Drive, we do not. And I don’t think we’re going to be able to build that without dramatic and visible steps to ensure that our police force can be trusted. This is a step in that direction, as strange as it may seem.

    • George Chidi says:

      So, I think you’ve hit on many of the fundamental sticking points about the field use of the cameras. Your concerns illustrate the essential friction between police in their role as law enforcement and their role as — for lack of a better word — social worker with a badge.

      I don’t mean that last as a joke. I’ve reported at length about gang activity and drug crime, and I know how much of that is rooted in managing social dysfunction, particularly among the poor. Trust can be very difficult to achieve even under the best circumstances.

      There are two major social trends in collision right now that are shaping this debate. The first is the ubiquity of easily-produced, easily-shared recording technology. It has become absurdly easy for anyone on the street to record a police interaction. One side effect of that has been the prevalence of video showing officers misbehaving: abusing suspects, breaking the law … or going after amateur cell phone videographers for having the temerity to legally record a cop in public.

      I’m fully aware that these videos are, generally, aberrations. Most cops are honest. (I’m also fully aware that the over-representation of black criminal suspects in the media is a similar aberration. Most black people are honest.) But the effect is exactly the same: trust has been eroded.

      That said, the second social factor has been the precipitous drop in crime over the last 20 years or so. All flavors of violent crime are in much shorter supply today than at any time in the last 50 years. The reality for the vast majority of the public has been a return to Leave It To Beaver crime levels. And the public’s perception of that reality is finally, finally beginning to catch up to facts on the ground.

      We are increasingly beginning to ask ourselves if the increased capabilities of police are actually worth the cost in blood and treasure … particularly if we have the tools to ensure greater accountability for that power and aren’t using them. Marijuana is being decriminalized, bit by bit. A combination of judicial reform and prison reform is shrinking prison populations and keeping people out of the judicial pipeline, because the social threat of criminal behavior is measurably decreasing both here in Georgia and nationwide.

      In 1991, I think the public would have been quite receptive to an argument to allow police freer rein when investigating violent crime and drug crime. Today that argument has to smack up against the long term social trend. It also has to square with the statistics on use of force by police, which have not fallen despite the decrease in crime. It should be considered a scandal, by the way, that the federal government does not accurately track police homicides. But other sources peg the annual rate of police killing of suspects between 400 and 1000 a year. (At 1000 a year, police would account for something like one out of eight gun homicides a year, which is outrageously high.)

      The public’s expectations around what will be gathered as evidence are shifting as a result. Video is easy to record, and police are responsible for a proportionately greater amount of fatal use of force than ever. The disparate treatment of people of color by the police has also come into sharper focus.

      Cameras do three things. They record evidence. They make bottom-fishing frivolous false complaints about police misconduct go away. And they decrease the use of force, both by police and by suspects. So goes the research to date, anyway.

      Policy makers have to weigh these benefits against the potential loss of capabilities.

      Our draft policy carves out exceptions for things like discussions with confidential informants (and bathroom breaks). But I think it essential that every arrest and every act of enforcement be recorded, along with the observable evidence leading to that enforcement. And it should absolutely, positively, without exception a requirement for the use of force to be recorded.

      Some of the concerns you’re citing already have some answers in existing policy. Most police departments have a protocol for handling juveniles and rape victim testimony. I’m struggling to imagine a precedent in existing law that would permit police questioning but wouldn’t permit recording that questioning.

      What this means, as a practical matter, is that if an officer is in plain clothes, not wearing a video recorder and observes a crime … he needs to call a cop. An exception might be made for undercover officers, but if a cop is ready to blow cover, they’re likely to be backed up and mic’ed up anyway.

      Sir, when you were conducting your community policing activities … were you armed? I might assume you were — most police departments expect police officers to carry, even off duty, because you’re always a police officer. Some people are fairly nervous around anyone with a gun — officer of the law or not. The question I might ask is whether the presence of a camera will provide an additional layer of trust for some people, even as it might erode trust in others … and whether that trade off is worth it.

      Some people don’t talk to cops today because, to be blunt, cops lie. I think it’s worth finding out whether or not the use of body cameras expands the pool of witnesses or contracts it.

      It’s a fundamental shift in the posture of the police and how they relate to the public. But it’s not unprecedented.

      I’ve been looking back at the arguments made by the state in the Miranda case. The government’s attorney argued that interrogations without explicitly informing suspects of their right to silence and to counsel were absolutely necessary in order to secure evidence for convictions. History has proven that assertion false over the years, and the public has rather grown used to the idea of hearing a Miranda warning when being arrested. (Except for the idiots who ignore Miranda when being arrested and just keep talking. I bet you know how big the overlap is in the Venn diagram between “stupid people,” “people who don’t mind talking to police when being arrested” and “criminals.”)

      “There is a need, I think, on the part of the people, to be able to refer to ‘my policeman,’ ‘our police,’ ‘my court,’ and not ‘those cops.’,” said Duane Nedrud, who argued on behalf of the National District Attorney’s Association against Miranda at the Supreme Court.

      Nedrud argued that what we now call the Miranda warning and the presence of defense attorney interposing themselves between police and suspects would erode the power of the state to draw confessions from defendants, and would “prevent the police from protecting us.” A defense attorney present earlier in the process would mean fewer convictions. “If this is what is wanted, this is what will occur,” he argued.

      But civil liberties and restrictions on police power — and I’ll be the first to say that this is probably a restriction on police power — expand and contract with necessity. Or at least, they should. I’m prepared to argue that the amazing drop in crime over the last generation supports constraint on police power.

      I think we’re on the edge of a major social shift, similar to the effect of the Miranda case. The fellows on the street corner will be all weird for a while when it becomes clear that you’re recording. The folks at the rotary might stop sending invitations for a while. And then … either they’ll loosen up, or they won’t.

      I am, sincerely, not trying to be dismissive. But I don’t think the world ends there.

  4. djdavis says:

    I am David Davis, Sheriff of Bibb County. We, too, are considering body cameras. As this article and comments suggest, this is a complex consideration. The process of deploying cameras is much easier said than done. We have nearly 300 deputies who may be eligible for wearing the cameras. So you can imagine the budget and logistical factors we will be considering.

    I agree wholeheartedly that sound policy must be in place prior to issuing body cameras. Our office is currently engaged in policy development for the use of the cameras. This conversation has given me some ideas we haven’t previously considered.

    I’d be delighted to discuss our shared examination of the use of this technology.
    My direct email is [email protected].

    • Dr. Monica Henson says:

      I work with several of Sheriff Davis’s staff, who act as school resource officers in my charter high school center in Macon during their off-duty hours. They are compassionate individuals who work hard to build positive relationships with our students, many of whom have previously dropped out or struggled to try to stay in school, and some may have had run-ins with the law or witnessed family who did. I trust Sheriff Davis’s perspective and I wonder what sort of chilling effect it might have on our kids if they knew that their conversations with their SROs are being recorded. It also raises FERPA issues for cameras to be used in a public school classroom.

  5. Ed says:

    This is a great thread, George. I think its interesting to see how super-small jurisdictions look at these issues because they always seem to be more practically-minded so you get a clearer picture of how murky issues are. Also, you’ve got a good mix of LEO weighing in.

  6. Thanks for posting this George. I imagine, in the wake of Ferguson, we’ll have a bill or two in the next Legislative session dealing with body cameras. It’s not an easy decision as your article and the subsequent comments demonstrate, but it’s a discussion that needs to be had.

    • Lea Thrace says:

      Ugh. This is a subject that I feel the legislature does NOT need to jump into right now. This is truly an issue that deserves local control. And in the absence of need of major regulation right now at the state level, I think yall need to stay out of it but keep an eye on it. Let the locals at least first try to come up with policies that work for their communities.

  7. Will Durant says:

    I will admit that there is more to this issue that I did not consider at first blush, however I recall there was some resistance from some law enforcement groups to dashboard cameras as well. Yet now, the dashboard cameras appear to help LEOs more than they hinder and I can’t recall a single incident where their use has harmed the public good, quite the opposite. I seriously doubt the South Carolina trooper who panicked and shot up the guy at a gas station a few months back would have been fired so quickly if the camera hadn’t told the story. Even the most staunch LEO must realize that type cannot be allowed and should be weeded out.

    Some of this is a bit too Orwellian for my personal taste but I’ve also been the victim of a highway crash with a lane changer cutting me off and have even considered getting my own dash cam. We probably need more protection of the “innocent” in the laws concerning public records. Mugshots and these videos should not be available to the public, press, or website leeches unless there is a conviction. Of course I would also note that the Sheriffs have been opposed to tightening up the civil forfeiture laws the past couple of years and property is still considered guilty even when the owner of same is not convicted or in some cases not even charged criminally. I really don’t see our legislators going against law enforcement groups if they come down opposing body cameras.

  8. Noway says:

    Will, saw a great dash cam on Kim Kommando’s web page. Basic version to night vision models. Could be greatest thing since sliced bread for our own protection against an over reaching law enforcement official.

  9. saltycracker says:

    The use is a local decision, but many local neighborhoods have more population than Pine Lake that needs four cops (except for the gated ones) with cars & cams ! Tough area or past issues ?

    The film is public property so who can get the royalties from the reality series “The people of Pine Lake” ?

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