By Danny Restivo
In the wake of several controversial police shootings, local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies have begun using body-worn cameras. Twenty-four states have approved or introduced body-worn camera regulations dictating when and where they can be used, while 25 have approved or proposed guidelines for accessing the footage.
Several studies have shown departments with cameras experience fewer incidents of confrontation and complaints against officers. However, a recent study by the Urban Institute discovered that body cameras do not consistently lead to less confrontation. In fact, the study shows that body-worn cameras may lead to more encounters with the public. While researchers and policymakers debate the pros and cons of police officer cameras, lawmakers see both the benefits and dangers of increased police surveillance.
In 2015, President Barack Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing issued a report that said technology could strengthen police relationships with all communities, while improving accountability among officers. As a result, the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance has helped law enforcement organizations around the country implement body-worn camera policies, practices and evaluation methods. With the DOJ program, the federal government has created a body-worn camera framework for police departments to follow, but it remains incumbent upon state authorities to create standards and guidelines, as well as enforcment polices. Additionally, an increase in body-worn cameras highlights concerns regarding the privacy of innocent victims and witnesses.
In Pennsylvania, the challenge of balancing public safety with government transparency has played out in the legislature and the courts.
State Senator Stewart J. Greenleaf of Montgomery County (R) introduced a bill that would revise the state’s wiretapping law and allow officers to leave their camera on while entering a private residence. If approved, the legislation could also let police departments refuse public requests for copies of audio or video by officers, unless a court order is issued. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania recently heard a police surveillance case stemming from a 2014 traffic accident in State College. Officers initially denied a request for video from a police dash cam by a passenger in the victim’s vehicle, but a lower court overruled. Police have argued that releasing surveillance video could compromise investigations, while potentially exposing innocent people to unnecessary scrutiny. Depending on the court’s ruling, a precedent for body-worn police footage could get cemented.
Moreover, a recent story by the Associated Press revealed that 10 out of 25 requests for police surveillance videos in Pennsylvania were denied. In each case where release was refused, police cited a need to protect investigative information, as well as the identity of private citizens. Under the Commonwealth’s Right to Know Law, news groups say they should have access to police videos in an effort to keep government accountable.
Whether it’s requirements for body camera use, funding, data storage, eavesdropping or releasing to the public, police camera policies vary in every state.
In Texas, police departments can charge for a copy of a body camera video. According to a November announcement from the Texas Secretary of State, police can charge $10 for each recording, as well as an additional fee of $1 per minute of footage if an identical copy hasn’t been released. Texas law doesn’t require police departments to release body camera footage, and can only do so “if it furthers law enforcement purpose.”
In South Carolina, where certain officers are required to wear body-worn cameras, recorded footage is exempt from the state’s public records law. While South Carolina has issued guidelines for departments to follow, local jurisdictions have a great deal of autonomy on camera policy. For example, local police chief’s can decide when cameras should be activated, what restrictions there are for recording, how long recordings should be retained and who is permitted to review the recordings.
In March, Florida Governor Rick Scott (R) signed a bill requiring law enforcement agencies using body-worn cameras to follow certain guidelines. The law does not require local departments to use cameras, however. It does build off a previous law that exempts the release of footage taken inside a residence, hospital, mental health facility or social services building. North Dakota approved a similar law in 2015.
Some police departments have come into conflict with the amount of time they are required to store video because of the costs it can incur. In late June, after Indiana approved a law requiring departments to store video for 190 days, a police department in Clarksville, located in southern Indiana, ended their camera program. The Clarksville police chief said the increased data storage would cost the department an extra $50,000 a year. The police chief, who mandated cameras in 2012, said paying for the body cameras was less burdensome with a 30-day requirement. Several other police departments in the Hoosier State followed suit.
A similar story played out in Berlin, Conn., where the police chief ended his department’s body-worn camera program after the state mandated 90-day storage, and up to four years if it was considered evidence.
While local police departments and state legislatures navigate the challenges of police body-worn cameras, the Department of Justice believes this technology can benefit everyone. In September, U.S. Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch announced $20 million in funding to help 106 state, city, tribal and municipal law enforcement agencies establish body-worn camera programs. With the increased funding, more law enforcement agencies—as well the residents who interact with them—will encounter challenges as local and state government’s aim to increase police transparency and accountability.
Snapshot of States with Body Camera Regulations
California—The state has passed laws requiring police departments to consider certain best practices for body-worn cameras. However, two bills aimed at increasing police transparency have failed in the statehouse. Currently, few police departments in California release body-worn camera video unless it’s court ordered. The state has strict laws preventing law enforcement information from becoming public.
Connecticut—Certain special police forces and any municipal police department receiving a state grant are required to use body-worn cameras when interacting with the public. The release of recordings is banned when it involves victims of domestic abuse, suicide, homicide or a fatal accident.
Illinois—Requires officers wearing cameras to ensure they’re on at all times, unless a victim or a witness of a crime requests otherwise. Illinois law excludes body camera data from the Freedom of Information Act, except when the data is flagged due to the filing of a complaint, a firearm is discharged, use of force occurs, or a victim or witness gives their permission for the video’s release.
Maryland—State law requires a police training commission to establish body camera policies and guidelines, including public accessibility and procedures for review. In March, the Baltimore police department announced that it would equip all its officers with body-worn cameras by 2018. The city has deployed its own program with footage available to the public through a request from Maryland’s Public Information Act.
Nevada—State law requires highway patrol officers who interact with people to wear body cameras, as well as enacting procedures for their use. Nevada law also stipulates that public requests for video can be made on a per incident basis and are available for inspection where the video is stored.
New Hampshire—In June, Governor Maggie Hassan (D) signed a bill establishing body-worn camera regulations for all departments, including when a camera should be activated and for how long the footage must be stored. Police are required to activate cameras when arriving at a call for service, while citizens, under certain circumstances, can decline recordings. If the camera is not activated, the officer must document the reason for doing so. The cameras can’t be used during intimate searches, interviews with crime victims, while on school grounds (unless there is a threat to life). Recordings are exempt from the state’s open records law, unless instances where police use of force, discharge a firearm, or where they engage in a situation that leads to a felony-level arrest.
New Jersey—The state requires certain personnel and vehicles to house a “mobile surveillance device.” In 2015, the state attorney general distributed $2.5 million for police departments to purchase body-worn cameras.
North Carolina—A bill signed by Governor Pat McCrory (R) in July stipulates who can view police footage. Only a person, or their representative, whose image or voice appears in the video can request access to view the video. All other requests must be made through a court order.
Oregon—State law requires police departments to develop procedures for body camera use. When appropriate, an officer wearing a body camera must notify people they encounter. Laws must align with the state’s eavesdropping laws.
States with Laws Dictating When and Where Body Cameras Can Be Used
Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, Nevada, New Hampsire, New Jersey, Oregon, South Carolina, Utah and Virginia.
(States with proposed legislation) – California, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Massachusetts, Missouri, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont and Washington.
States with Laws Restricting Public Access to Footage
Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, Nevada, New Jersey, New Hampshire, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Carolina, Texas and Virgina.
(States with proposed legislation) – California, Florida, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio, Tennessee and Washington.
States requiring consent
Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Maryland, Masschusetts, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Washington (all states have exemptions in certain circumstances).