ACLU Says Proposed Policy For Police Body Cameras Falls Short

Sep 23, 2016

This week, a committee of Columbus city leaders shared their recommendations on how to roll out the city’s new body camera program for police. But the ACLU thinks there's a few holes in the city's proposed policy.

After 7 months of research and a month-long pilot program by Columbus Police, the committee attempted to answer questions that cities across the country have grappled with when adopting body cameras.

Gary Daniels with the ACLU, says for the most part, the committee did a pretty good job, but there were three recommendations he says missed the mark.

First, Daniel said, undercover or plainclothes officers should be required to wear a camera. Take for instance the fatal police involved shooting of Henry Green last Spring, says Daniels. The officer who shot Green was in plainclothes.

"I'm not saying a body worn camera would have revealed 100 percent what went on in that incident," says Daniels. "But it might have helped, there's no doubt about that."

George Speaks from the city’s public safety office chaired the committee. He says undercover officers should be an exception; in that situation, wearing a body camera could give them away.

"Officers who are plainclothes are in very different situations; drug buys etc. You certainly do not want to telegraph to the folks that he's working with that this person is an officer," Speaks said.

Next, the ACLU and the committee disagree about how much discretion an officer should have in choosing to turn the camera on and off. The ACLU says, keep the cameras rolling. But Speaks says because of Ohio public records laws, every minute of that footage would be accessible to the public, and there are instances where that could be a problem.

"[For example] if you have a confidential informant who is giving an officer information about a neighbor who is committing a crime. Let’s assume it's a gang for example," says Speaks.

According to recommendations by the committee, officers would be required to have their cameras on when making an arrest, any use of force and in an adversarial event. But in order to protect the privacy of the public they would turn their cameras off when entering a private residence, school or hospital, or when interacting with a victim of rape or stalking. 

Lastly, and maybe the most hotly contested issue is the question of when the officer is allowed to view the camera footage. Daniels says, if officers are allowed to view the footage of a disputed incident before filling out their report, something like a police shooting, they could change their story in order cover up their mistake.

"You have some officers that will fudge the truth, especially if the camera doesn't adequately capture what went on," says Daniels. "And body cameras, you know we’re not talking about Hollywood productions with multiple cameras and everything."

George Speaks says this was the most debated topic among the committee and although they considered the ACLU’s recommendation, Speaks says they were swayed by another study funded by the Department of Justice.

"Video footage will help lead to the truth about the incident by helping the officers to remember the incident more clearly," says Speaks. "In other words accuracy will be enhanced by allowing an officer to review the video."

Cities from New York to California have debated this question, and the vast majority, have decided that, yes, officers can review the footage immediately after any incident. But there are a few exceptions.

Commander Chris Peters from the Parker, Colorado police department is in one of four jurisdictions, according to the ACLU, that has adopted the ACLU's recommendation.

"We've got some accolades from the ACLU on our policy and we worked very closely with them in developing it," says Peters.

Peters says they actually made a compromise. If the footage involves something like a routine traffic stop, officers can view the footage and include that information in their report, but Peters says there are certain instances when that's prohibited.

"If they're involved in a critical incident, and what we mean by that is like an officer-involved shooting, or other serious use of force," says Peters.

Peters says if an officer is suspected of any wrong doing, or if prosecutors might have to get involved, that officer is not allowed review footage from the related incident. In his opinion, Peters says that policy is pretty straight forward and it follows protocol that's been around since before body cameras.

"It's standard practice that you're not going to have these officers talk amongst themselves before they give a statement. They're also not going to view surveillance from a gas station," says Peters "Logically it just makes sense that were going to continue to not introduce any outside influences before they make a statement."

Parker Colorado is small: it has only 75 officers, compared to nearly 2,000 in Columbus. But Parker says this policy could work in any department, no matter the size.