Holding the Government Accountable

Despite Years of Recommendations, Government Still Rewards Bad Policies for Body Cameras

(Photo: Utility, Inc. / Flickr)

In the last several years, we have seen a boom in the use of police body cameras. Departments across the country have adopted the cameras, and most of the nation’s largest cities have either begun pilot programs or full rollouts of body cameras for officers. This has largely driven by calls for police reform and enhanced accountability, but it’s also been driven by financial assistance and other incentives provided by the federal government and body camera vendors. Unfortunately, as the use of these cameras has proliferated, serious problems have emerged from their use in a number of jurisdictions. Despite these problems, the federal government continues to reward departments and cities that operate bad body camera polices with additional grant funding.

If body cameras are to live up to their potential as an oversight mechanism meant to check abuse, rules need to be in place providing public access to body camera footage in a way that ensures accountability. So too must rules governing how long departments can retain footage, ability of those on camera to opt-out of being recorded, and limiting the collection, storage, and use of biometric data to prevent body cameras from becoming a pervasive surveillance tool.

Historically, however, the Department of Justice has failed to recognize these priorities when issuing funding for body camera purchases. As I highlighted in 2015, its initial funding for body cameras gave million dollar grants to cities, even though these jurisdictions failed to provide adequate policies governing their use on the most critical measures. This not only rewarded departments with bad policies and accelerated problematic deployment in those cities, it also set a bad example for localities looking to adopt body cameras when they turned to cities that already received funds as models guidelines and rules.

This is a major reason The Constitution Project’s comprehensive report on police body cameras included among its recommendations that federal funding be contingent upon adoption of specific, effective policies.

As the report notes, “federal funding may accelerate adoption of body camera programs absent due consideration for necessary policies at the local level,” and “if departments with ineffective policies receive significant funding, other localities may improperly view these policies as an appropriate benchmark, or simply imitate these policies with the hope of acquiring future funding.” As the only comprehensive report on body cameras signed onto by both civil liberties advocates and former law enforcement officers, this and the report’s other recommendations represent common sense, consensus solutions that will help both law enforcement and the communities they police.

Unfortunately, DOJ continues to fund police body cameras in a way that provides no incentive for cities to adopt good policies, while also rewarding jurisdictions with bad policies.

Two civil society organizations, The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and Upturn, maintain a scorecard that tracks departments’ body camera policies on eight critical issues. The scorecard’s methodology in determining whether departments “fully satisfy,” “partially satisfy,” or “fail” at implementing best practices associated with those issues largely mirror the recommendations in The Constitution Project’s report, and is an excellent metric for determining the effectiveness of departments’ body camera policies. As the scorecard reveals, DOJ continues to give the greatest amount of funding to cities that receive failing grades.

The key issues included requiring that cameras be turned on at appropriate times, establishing public access to footage to ensure accountability, and protecting privacy by limiting use of biometric surveillance in combination with facial recognition. Of the 27 cities that received DOJ grants of $500,000 or more, only 5 received passing grades (“fully satisfy” or “partially satisfy”) on the majority of the key issues: Cincinnati (7/8), Chicago (5/8), Las Vegas (5/8), San Francisco (5/8), and Washington D.C. (6/8).

Here’s how the remaining 22 localities that DOJ decided were worthy of body camera grants broke down:

  • Alameda County: Failed on 7/8 issues
  • Albuquerque: Failed on 4/8 issues
  • Austin: Failed on 5/8 issues
  • Baton Rouge: Did not receive a fully or partially satisfy grade on any issues
  • Broward County: Did not receive a fully or partially satisfy grade on any issues
  • Detroit: Failed on 5/8 issues
  • Fayetteville: Failed on 5/8 issues
  • Fort Lauderdale: Failed on 5/8 issues
  • Jacksonville: Failed on 4/8 issues
  • Los Angeles: Failed on 4/8 issues
  • Los Angeles County: Failed on all 8 issues
  • Miami: Failed on 5/8 issues
  • Miami-Dade: Failed on 4/8 issues
  • Minneapolis: Failed on 4/8 issues
  • New Orleans: Failed on 4/8 issues
  • Omaha: Failed on 4/8 issues
  • Phoenix: Failed on 5/8 issues
  • Raleigh: Failed on 4/8 issues
  • Rochester: Failed on 5/8 issues
  • San Antonio: Failed on 4/8 issues
  • Seattle: Failed on 4/8 issues
  • Tulsa: Failed on 6/8 issues

If departments continue to fail on critical policies, police body cameras will not be a means of enhanced accountability, and will instead only serve to massively increase government surveillance. Years have passed since DOJ began grant funding for body cameras, but its actions reflect a continual pattern of handing out funds without due consideration of whether cities are developing body camera programs that will achieve their desired goals of accountability and improving police-community relations.

It’s time for Congress and DOJ to take a harder line when funding police body cameras. If localities are going to receive federal funds, they need to be conditioned on specific and effective policies. Without such a change, it seems clear DOJ will continue to fund departments in a manner that accelerates the rollout of bad programs, and sets a poor example for any departments starting police body camera programs in the future.