The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
July 8, 2015

Police body-camera footage: Why public should only kind of mean public

Police body-worn cameras (BWC) are meant to increase transparency and trust. However, a poorly implemented set of policies on the use of cameras and access to footage may actually have the opposite effect and make things worse.

The inherent tension is currently playing out in the nation’s capital, where the DC Council has tied funding for BWC expansion to a requirement that footage be publicly available. While many would agree that making footage public is critical for accountability, there is also nuance to BWC footage that may affect what “publicly available” should look like.

The public’s interest in assessing officer actions can conflict with private citizens’ interests in maintaining their privacy. Officers often encounter suspects and victims on what is likely the worst day of their lives. A victim or a suspect who has just been involved in something terrible would likely want to prevent a record of their tragedy from being made public.

Why BWC footage can’t always stand alone: Context matters

Redacting the audio and video of community members from BWC footage has been offered as a solution to the problem; however, besides the incredible costs, removing citizens from footage can create bias.

Police action does not occur in a vacuum, and it is impossible to assess officer behavior without context. For example, any time an officer restrains a resisting individual—even if it is completely justified and done exactly as trained—in the absence of context, it could look like a case of police brutality. It is necessary to see the community members’ actions in order to accurately interpret the officers’ responses.

The behaviors of others that would be redacted from the footage are the very context that is necessary for interpreting officers’ behaviors.

Even without redaction, the limited frame of view, audio and video quality, and timing of the recording could present a misleading depiction of what actually occurred.

Recently released footage of officers involved in a fatal shooting in Palestine, Texas, shows how two different BWC recordings of the same event could present two different stories. (Caution, explicit video in links that follow.) While the suspect’s weapon draw is clearly visible from Sergeant Gabriel Green’s camera, Officer Kaylynn Griffin’s camera only offers a brief glimpse of the gun. It is easy to imagine how in some circumstances, a camera may completely fail to capture a critical component.

Our proposed guidelines

So, how do you make police BWC footage publicly available in a way that is transparent and accountable, maintains citizen privacy, and provides the most accurate account of events possible? We propose the following guidelines:

  • Footage should be made publicly available in a controlled and non-reproducible manner, similar to the policies adopted in many courtrooms: members of the public may observe court proceedings in person, but recordings are not allowed. In application, a video terminal located in a controlled environment (where individuals are required to relinquish their phones and other recording devices) could be used for each observation to record the viewer’s contact information, provide special instructions on rights and responsibilities for viewing BWC footage, record the viewer’s account of events and interest in viewing the video, and play the raw footage.
  • Footage should always be viewed in its entirety and should not be redacted or enhanced in any way for public review.
  • Before anyone is allowed to view the footage, whether it is an officer or a citizen, that individual should provide a recorded account of what they believe occurred during the incident. Requiring a statement prior to viewing the footage should limit opportunities to “fish the footage” for ways to use the video to support a misleading or false depiction of events.
  • If footage needs to be openly released to the public—whether by request of the public or the police—a group of community representatives with special rights and responsibilities (such as the grand jury or a group like DC’s Advisory Neighborhood Commissions) should determine whether releasing the footage appropriately balances the competing public and private interests contained in the recording.

Ultimately, police BWC footage should be publicly available in some form or fashion. But this is a complicated issue with multiple and conflicting interests, and we must strike a careful balance. 

AP Photo/Matt Rourke

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