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San Diego Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman recently announced her department will outfit officers at three divisions with body cameras by the end of June.
That means about 1,000 officers at Central, Southeastern and Mid-City divisions will have cameras attached to their uniforms to record interactions between police and members of the community.
While body cameras have the potential to be a transparency win for both police and the public, they’ve got to be deployed within a framework of strong policies to protect residents without becoming yet another intrusive or ineffective surveillance system.
Here are some guidelines the San Diego Police Department should consider as it determines its policies and the public sets its expectations.
• Department-wide, officers wearing the cameras should be required to record every interaction with the public. Failure to do so should result in disciplinary action.
• Policymakers may want to consider an exclusionary rule for evidence obtained during an interaction that should have been recorded and wasn’t, or a presumption against an officer where there is a claim of misconduct that comes from an unrecorded incident.
• Recording should be limited to uniformed officers so citizens know to expect it, with an exception for SWAT raids and similar uses of force involving non-uniformed officers.
• When practicable, officers should be required to notify citizens that they are being recorded.
• When entering a home, officers should provide clear notice that cameras are recording, except in emergency situations. A request to turn off the camera should itself be recorded. Cameras should never be turned off during a SWAT raid or similar use of force.
• An ideal policy would also limit the use of recordings to investigations of misconduct, and situations in which the police have reasonable suspicion that a recording contains evidence of a crime.
• People recorded by body cameras should have access to, and the right to make copies of, those recordings, for however long the government maintains copies of them. That should also apply to disclosure to a third party, or to criminal defense lawyers seeking relevant evidence.
• Public disclosure of recordings should be limited, in accord with the right to privacy, after giving the subject notice and an opportunity to object to disclosure if necessary.
• Where feasible, the recording should be redacted to protect the privacy of individuals involved. This may include blurring or blacking out portions of video and/or distorting audio to obscure the identity of the subject.
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Although the use of surveillance cameras in American life is generally suspicious, police body cameras are different. These have a high potential to serve as a check against the abuse of power by police officers. Cameras can help protect the public against police misconduct, and at the same time protect police against false accusations of abuse.
It’s in the best interest of the police to maintain public confidence by taking proper precautions and putting these policies in place. We don’t want victims to be afraid to call for help because they fear video of their officer interactions will go public or reach the wrong party.
The department will need to continually evaluate the impact of body cameras. That analysis should measure if privacy violations are occurring, and if so, what kind and how often, as well as any impact on crime reporting.
Fitting SDPD officers with cameras will generate an enormous amount of footage and raises many tricky issues. But if appropriate policies for recording, retention, access, use and technology are followed, the public need not fear unwarranted invasions of privacy.
Kellen Russoniello is a staff attorney at the ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties. Russoniello’s commentary has been edited for style and clarity. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here.