(This post originally appeared in Crosscut here. This version is more expanded and detailed.)
President Obama is redirecting at least $75 million in federal funding to buy body-worn video cameras for up to 50,000 police officers. This initiative is driven partially by recent shootings of unarmed citizens in Ferguson, Missouri, and New York City. Seattle’s Crosscut has extensively reported on this issue.
Since the cameras are relatively inexpensive – a few hundred to a thousand dollars each – police departments around the nation should be able to rapidly and deploy this useful technology, right?
Police Officer Darren Wilson’s killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, has ignited a nationwide interest in the potential use of body-worn video cameras by police. The Ferguson Police Department itself purchased and deployed such cameras for all of its officers just three weeks after the incident. Other police departments from around the country joined this the body-cam bandwagon.
In a time of polarization about the role of the police in our communities, the use of body-worn video cameras seems to have universal support. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) dislikes video surveillance in general but likes body-worn cameras because they hold police officers accountable for their actions. Police Unions like them because they hold citizens accountable for their actions – in two small studies, civilian complaints against police officers declined by 60% to 88% after implementation of body-cams. Police management likes to use such video because it helps build public trust in law enforcement by showing accountability. Many officers like video cameras because most of what they do is helping people – saving lives, performing CPR, protecting the vulnerable during serious crimes such as assaults and domestic violence – but this side of the work is rarely mentioned in the media. The Department of Justice likes the cameras, as do elected officials. And they appear to work: one DOJ study found showed use of force by officers declined by 60%, and violence from citizens against police also declined. Prosecutors like video, as it helps establish and support criminal charges, although evidence for such support is unclear (DOJ 2014 Study, page 7).
This trend is also good for Seattle, as two of the major companies working on police video technology have offices here. Seattle’s VIEVU is a major supplier of the cameras themselves. Taser International is headquartered in Phoenix but its cloud-services operation, evidence.com, is located in downtown Seattle. Evidence.com stores video and serves it to both police departments and (when authorized) others such as attorneys and citizens.
The trouble is, it is difficult to widely deploy body-worn video cameras given a wide variety of technological and legal challenges. Here are a few:
- Deploying cameras involves almost every unit within a police department. Besides patrol, police management will be involved, as will internal affairs, the legal staff, technology staff, evidence custodians, civilian staff involved with public disclosure and a number of outside agencies such as courts, prosecutors and public defenders. This takes a lot of time and effort,
- Body-cams have an effect on the efficiency of patrol officers. On one hand police reports may be easier to write and charges easier to file because video shows at least part of the police interactions, statements by victims and witnesses, at the arrest. On the other hand officers and supervisors will spend time reviewing video, a new task in their workdays.
- Body-cam video creates a huge volume of digital material. Seattle Police, for example, has a total of over 500 patrol officers. If each officer works 40 hours a week, and the body-cam video is constantly recording, this represents 20,000 hours of video a week. Of course most video systems are set up to record only at certain times, for example when the officer turns on the recording or (in the case of dashcam video) when the overhead lights are turned on during an incident or traffic stop. But officer discretion also presents a number of problems. Often incidents happen very fast – an officer sees a crime in progress and immediately responds to stop or apprehend the offender. Officers may not have time to stop and turn on the video system because to do so places either the officer or a citizen in danger. No matter what the policy for having the video operational, at the very least hundreds of hours of video will be produced each week.
- Police work occurs during abysmal conditions: rain, snow, traffic noise, night-time. Audio and video quality often will be poor.
- Body-cam video presents major technology challenges. There are a whole variety of these, for examples:
- Maintaining an adequate amount of disk storage;
- Acquiring fast servers to immediately serve the video on demand;
- Backing up the video to preserve it in case of disk storage failure;
- Protection from intentional or inadvertent alteration;
- Protection from intentional or inadvertent access, e.g. hacking or access by unauthorized employees or the public prior to redaction;
- Creating a system to manage the video. Often this might include disk storage on the officer to hold the video, followed by offloading the video to a computer in the car, followed by offloading the video to data center servers when the car returns to a secure area.
- Adding metadata so the video is easily searchable. Metadata attached to each video clip might include date, time, officers’ names, victims’ names, witness’ names, and case numbers.
- Video presents a major public disclosure issue. The Washington Public Records Act and the State Supreme Court’s decision in the case “KOMO-TV versus the Seattle Police Department” state these videos are public, except when a case is under investigation. But such video captures, real-time, the trauma of often-innocent citizens who are crime victims, victims of domestic violence and rape, having a medical emergency and who are being detained or arrested – often when charges are later dropped. The videos include statements from witnesses, victims, confidential informants and sometimes attorney-client privileged conversations. A minority of the Supreme Court, in the KOMO decision, felt Washington’s Privacy Laws took precedence and agreed such video should not be released. But the majority disagreed. Public disclosure is the major reason most Washington police agencies do not widely employ body-worn video. Baltimore has created a specific police task force to address privacy issues and others associated with body-cams. Seattle has a digital privacy initiative to address not just police and body-cam issues, but privacy issues in general.
Video requires redaction before release. A sergeant with the Albuquerque Police Department observed that “officers a lot of times are seeing people on the worst day of their lives, and we’re capturing that on video that’s now a public record.” (DOJ Study, page 27.) Common sense as well as privacy dictates every video should be reviewed and redacted. This includes either getting permission of most of the citizens in the video to release it, or blurring faces and removing audio before release. Indeed, changes to Washington State’s public records act or privacy laws may be required to deal with these redaction and public disclosure issues. Redaction technology to reliably blur individual faces or otherwise redact video does not exist. Redaction must be done manually, a time consuming and expensive process. (Note: the Seattle Police Department is conducting a hackathon on December 19, 2014, hoping to enlist the help of tech-savvy citizens to address the problem of redaction.)
- Unredaction may be an issue. Technology allows at least partial redaction of video; but similar technologies may be available to unredact video, re-instating the privacy concerns.
- Police departments need to develop a whole variety of policies to address the issues listed above and others. Many of these issues are quite thorny.
- Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson just released an opinion about whether an officer needs to ask permission and a citizen needs to give consent before their interaction is video-recorded. According to that opinion, police do not have to ask permission, even to record video inside a private residence. Citizens may act differently – and behave better – if they know a recording is in progress. Or elected officials may decide they want officers to ask permission before making recordings inside a private home.
- As another example, basic facial recognition technology now exists. Should all police-recorded video be sent through facial recognition software to identify the individuals who have been recorded?
- Should officers be allowed to turn the video on and off? If so, under what circumstances?
- Such questions require serious deliberation.
- Deployment of body-worn video often requires re-negotiation of the police union contract, and negotiation of the policies with community organizations such as the ACLU.
- Officers must be trained not only in the operation of the body-cam video, but also in all the policies for managing video and using it as evidence. All this training means officers will, again, spend less time on the street.
Body-worn video cameras for public safety are an admirable technology. Body-cams for police officers are needed in America today. And there is almost universal agreement they should be deployed.
But, as with many technologies, the cultural, political, policy and technical impediments are significant. Communities need to understand all the ramifications, and elected officials need to be ready to pay the costs in resources, dollars and time to enable an effective deployment.