| Julia Edwards |
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Civil rights activists and some police chiefs are warning that the Obama administration’s proposal to help local police departments buy 50,000 body cameras must come with firm rules on how to use the equipment.
They say that without proper oversight to address potential misuse, such as when police turn off their cameras during brutal acts, the wide deployment of the equipment could undermine efforts to build trust in police departments across the country.
Last week, President Barack Obama announced a $75 million plan to help police departments buy body cameras after a state grand jury decided not to indict a white officer in Ferguson, Missouri, for the shooting death of an unarmed black teen, sparking protests and conversations about excessive force and racial bias in policing.
Obama’s plan, which requires congressional approval, calls for departments to undergo training, receive guidance on best practices from the Department of Justice and submit a plan of use for approval.
The department is still working out how thorough those measures must be.
However, a Justice Department official told Reuters that should police violate the terms of such a plan, enforcement will fall to local and state authorities.
Civil rights and civil liberties advocates are wary of the lack of a federal enforcement plan.
“You must have an accountability mechanism,” said Barbara Arnwine, executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee on Civil Rights. “If you have a department that has a bad record and is bad at following through on discipline, then body cameras are meaningless.”
Police Chief Michael Chitwood, who has been using body cameras in his department in Daytona Beach, Florida, since 2010, said his experience has shown the need for strong oversight.
He said he fired an officer earlier this year for turning off his camera during a brutal beating of a woman, which violated a policy he had established.
Chitwood said the Justice Department should issue strong guidelines that could override local politics and union power that can tarnish policies.
“The Department of Justice has a huge role in it because different jurisdictions have different internal power structures. Any policy that a commissioner comes up with, that (police) union is going to use its power to stop the cameras unless they get the policy that they want,” he said.
Not all police chiefs share his view. “I wouldn’t want the federal government dictating how I use my cameras,” said Ken Miller, police chief in Greenville, South Carolina, and formerly chief in Greensboro, North Carolina, where he used body cameras. “Every community has their own issues and their own dynamics.”
It is also not clear how a federal enforcement mechanism could work. Grants to purchase equipment would be provided by the Justice Department’s Office of Justice Programmes, which has little authority beyond ensuring the specified equipment is purchased.
The federal government has come under attack for lax oversight of a separate Pentagon programme that gives unused military gear, including heavily armoured vehicles and machine guns, to local police departments.
Body cameras are used by thousands of police officers and are viewed as a tool to increase transparency, particularly in resolving discrepancies between an officer’s account and a citizen’s account of a violent interaction.
But they are a relatively new tool for police departments. A report funded by the Justice Department and released earlier this year by the nonprofit Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) found that of the 63 agencies that reported using body cameras, about one-third did not have a written policy for their usage.
Lindsay Miller, a PERF researcher who worked on the study, said she repeatedly heard from police chiefs that they did not know how to fairly implement their use. “It’s not as easy as sticking a camera on an officer and sending them out on their way,” Miller said.
Among the unresolved issues: whether cameras are allowed into private homes, how long footage should be stored and how much access the public should have to the footage.
There is early evidence that written policies make a difference. A study out of Arizona State University this year on the Mesa, Arizona, police department found that police officers were 20 per cent more likely to turn on their cameras when responding to an incident when the department had a policy that required them to do so.
There are also questions about whether it would be appropriate for the Justice Department to mandate how local police use body cameras.
Peter Manning, professor of criminology at Northeastern University, said unlike many European countries, the US government tends not to interfere in local police matters.
Some US lawmakers, even body camera supporters, are skeptical about heavy federal involvement.
“I think local states and local cities should take more control of that for themselves,” said Republican US Representative John Fleming of Louisiana, who said he likes body cameras for police but doesn’t like Uncle Sam paying for them.
US Representative Adam Schiff of California, part of a mainly Democratic group that has been advocating for body cameras since September, said he would only suggest mandating specific policies if widespread evidence emerges that police departments are not willing to adopt them on their own.
A compromise may be tougher oversight at the state level.
Legislators in Utah, Kansas and Mississippi have said they will bring bills to the floor regarding body cameras use early next year. A bill pending in the New Jersey legislature would require all state and local officers to wear body cameras and would appoint the state’s attorney general to create guidelines to determine what footage can be released to the public.
Some police chiefs still see a role for the federal government.
Police Chief Christopher Chew in Evesham, New Jersey, whose department has used body cameras for six months, said there should be consistent rules on when to turn cameras on and when videos should be released to the public.
“If you’re going to implement something federally, such as the body cameras, you want to say, ‘Here are the guidelines on what the country expects’,” he said.