At a time when police across the U.S. are being watched warily by the citizens they serve, many departments are embracing wearable cameras to document their interactions with the public. Police and rights activists alike had hoped recording incidents on patrol would help discourage violence against officers as well as increase transparency in how police treat citizens. But a report released this week questions how much law enforcement agencies are telling the public about the use of the cameras—and the footage they collect.
The latest body-worn camera scorecard from the The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, working with technology and policy consulting firm Upturn, examined 50 U.S. police departments and pronounced them lacking in most of the study’s eight criteria. These benchmarks include how well police protect the privacy of those they record, whether officers are allowed to review footage before filing their reports, how long the footage is retained and whether civilians can view footage in which they appear. A number of civil rights organizations, privacy advocates and media outlets developed the criteria in May 2015 to influence how departments implement and use the technology.
None of the departments got a passing grade in all categories. In fact only 13 passed muster in more than two areas, according to Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference, a civil rights umbrella group formed in 1950 to represent a number of organizations including the NAACP and ACLU. Police departments in Ferguson, Mo., and Fresno, Calif., failed to satisfy any of the criteria at all. Ferguson drew the world’s attention two years ago when police there fatally shot unarmed African-American teenager Michael Brown, leading to nationwide controversy over the way law enforcement treats minorities.
Civil rights groups are also concerned that biometric software with facial-recognition capabilities could be used to identify people in camera footage, and the scorecard’s eighth point grades departmental camera policies based on whether they call for limits on biometrics use. The technology needed to immediately recognize individuals on camera requires a combination of processing power, algorithms and camera battery life that does not yet exist—but that could change quickly as Taser International and other body-camera makers develop live-streaming capabilities. And facial recognition of stored images already exists.
Civil rights groups fear police will use cameras as sweeping surveillance equipment while patrolling minority neighborhoods, Henderson said at a press conference. Some departments have responded to these concerns by imposing rules to limit streaming facial-recognition technology—before it becomes available. The Baltimore Police Department was the only one in last year’s inaugural Leadership Conference scorecard whose policy already constrains biometric searches of footage. The Conference’s latest scorecard shows that police in Baltimore County, Boston, Cincinnati, Montgomery County, Md., and Parker, Colo., have all added biometrics limitations as well.
“The use of biometrics is going to be a big issue—and not in the too-distant future,” says James Coldren, managing director for justice programs at the CNA Institute for Public Research, a nonprofit research and analysis organization. “It’s like anything else. Biometrics can create problems if it’s not regulated or monitored and people with bad intentions use it that way.” Coldren and William Sousa, director of the Center for Crime and Justice Policy at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, are leading a study of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department’s body-worn camera pilot program. They were not involved with the Leadership Conference study but have found through their research that, after some initial resistance, police departments are welcoming body-worn cameras. “[In Las Vegas] the department found that the videos are good for the innocent and bad for the guilty,” Coldren says.
Regardless of what the future holds, other issues are more pressing than biometrics, says Michael White, a professor of criminology at Arizona State University who has assessed body-worn cameras for the U.S. Department of Justice (DoJ). “I have heard some talk about potential [uses of biometrics] but I don't know of any agencies moving quickly in that direction right now.” Of the criteria that the Leadership Conference focuses on, the most significant involve when officers record and how they protect subjects’ privacy—particularly that of crime victims. Such privacy concerns have surfaced as some departments create YouTube channels for their footage.
Many departments cite cost as a barrier to using the technology. The cameras themselves can range in price from $300 to $800 per officer, with hundreds of thousands of dollars more spent on monthly video storage over time. The costs are easy to calculate: hardware, training and data storage. Savings such as reduced lawsuits or less contentious community relations, however, are not so easy to quantify, says White, co-director of a team that trains and assists a variety of law enforcement agencies whose camera programs are funded by the DoJ’s Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) Pilot Implementation Program. But White thinks at least some of the costs will be offset. “Some large police departments routinely pay out $10 million or more annually in civil litigation,” he says. “If body-worn cameras reduce that figure, that is a huge positive.”
The BJA uses its own scorecard to evaluate departmental camera policies using 17 criteria mandatory for funding, including whether officers are instructed on when they have to activate their body cameras and how to securely download the footage to department computers. There is a good reason these policies are receiving such scrutiny: The BJA has already shelled out more than $19 million to 73 agencies nationwide to buy wearable camera systems.