In December 2016, The Constitution Project Committee on Policing Reforms released this report (excerpted below) on best practices for the use of police body-worn cameras. Body-worn cameras have surged in popularity in recent years, with departments across the country outfitting officers with them. They have been seen as a tool to provide greater transparency and reduce misconduct, particularly by shedding light on instances when officers use force against individuals. However, they can also negatively affect the constitutional rights of people who are filmed, particularly by undermining their privacy.
The nearly 30 members of our policing committee came from diverse backgrounds, including law enforcement, the civil rights community, academia, and the military. Our report makes numerous proposals for policies to maximize the benefits of body-worn cameras while minimizing the associated risks.
Police body-worn cameras have recently gained increased attention among law enforcement professionals, and a significant number of U.S. law enforcement agencies now state that they either are implementing a body-worn camera program or have committed to doing so.
However, body-worn cameras are not a panacea. Implementation without proper policies in place can result in significant detriments to law enforcement agencies and the communities they serve. Among these concerns is the potential impact on a broad range of constitutional rights and values. Accordingly, agencies must weigh the benefits and detriments of body cameras when deciding whether and how to implement them.
This report describes a number of the most significant issues that law enforcement agencies and their communities may encounter when implementing body-worn camera programs. The Constitution Project Committee on Policing Reforms (Committee) provides recommendations that it believes can resolve or mitigate these issues. The recommendations are summarized below:
- Body-worn cameras should only be used to further a narrowly defined and clearly articulated purpose.
- Policymakers should engage with the community in making body camera rules.
- Policymakers should engage with law enforcement personnel as body cameras are introduced.
When to Record
- A clear policy should require officers to record most law enforcement activities.
- Officers should be required to notify subjects they are being recorded.
- Officers should generally stop recording upon an individual’s request.
- Policies should be clear about each officer’s obligations regarding recording, and the potential administrative penalties for violating the policy should be laid out.
Data Maintenance and Use
- Videos important to police accountability or evidence should be flagged for retention.
- Videos that are not “flagged” or necessary for evidentiary purposes should be deleted after a reasonably short period of time.
- The chain of custody for videos must be clearly preserved and recorded.
- Officer access to videos should be properly limited and recorded.
- Officers should be permitted to review their footage after writing an initial report.
- Proper data security standards and auditing systems must be used to prevent improper access and
- Effective audit systems should exist to prevent improper access or tampering.
- Use of “tagging” technologies should be strongly limited and require judicial authorization.
- Any in-government sharing of footage should require the receiving entity to employ the policies of the
Public Data Access
- Any person captured by the footage should be permitted to review video of an incident in which he or she was involved.
- Release of footage as a public record request should generally be permitted with appropriate redactions.
- Release of video in connection with legal proceedings should follow standard evidentiary rules.
- Proper training should be required for those using body cameras and footage.
Availability of Policies and Changes
- All policies regarding body cameras should be written and publicly available.
- Departments should be open to revision of policies with public input and notification.
Appropriate Policies in Conjunction with Federal Funding
- Federal funding should be contingent on adoption of specific, effective policies.
The Committee does not recommend that law enforcement agencies either adopt or abstain from using body-worn cameras; that decision must be made with input from the communities that will be impacted by such programs. However, the Committee believes that for those departments that do use body-worn cameras, following the above recommendations will best ensure that programs uphold constitutional rights and values.
Read the full report
Despite their potential, body-worn cameras present risks. They are not a panacea, and we should not expect them—or any other single, isolated reform—to singlehandedly resolve issues of excessive use of force and police misconduct.Download
The Constitution Project seeks to safeguard our constitutional rights when the government exercises power in the name of national security and domestic policing, including ensuring our institutions serve as a check on that power.