This summer the Los Angeles Police Department hopes to outfit 600 of its officers with on-body video cameras. The cameras, unlike the picture at left, resemble a bluetooth ear piece and would attach to the officer’s collar or sunglasses. Funding for the project has been secured from private donors, with the department raising roughly $1.3 million in just 58 days. That should fun the program for two and half years.

The cameras are intended to serve two important purposes. First, they will aid with collecting and preserving evidence. Eyewitness testimony is notoriously unreliable, and video recordings of crime scenes and arrests can help reduce he-said, she-said disputes at trial. Second, and perhaps more importantly, the cameras can alter behavior. The department hopes that the constant surveillance will keep officers on their best behavior.

There is some evidence to support this. A pilot program in Rialto, California resulted in an 88 percent reduction in complaints filed against officers. Over the same 12 month period, use of force by officers fell almost 60 percent.

Reducing officer misbehavior and improving department-community relations has long been a top priority for the LAPD. In 2011, the department paid out more than $24 million in settlements related to civil rights violations and traffic accidents. Following the Rodney King incident in 1991, the department began installing dashboard cameras in patrol cars. Progress, however, has been slow: more than 20 years later, just a quarter of the department’s 1,200 patrol cars have been equipped with cameras.

The on-body cameras, like the dashboard cameras before them, raise a host of privacy issues — for both the public and the officers.

At the forefront are concerns over access to the recorded footage. Video from dashboard cameras frequently ends up on the evening news. Will body camera footage do the same? Some argue that the footage is in the public domain. It is a public record made by a public employee in the course of their employment. Similarly, it is unlikely that the government could claim a copyright on the videos. On the other hand, on-body cameras have the potential to capture intimate moments when people surely are not at their best. They also have far greater range, which makes them more intrusive than dashboard cameras. For example, when an officer makes an arrest on a downtown sidewalk it is largely irrelevant whether the incident is captured by a body or dashboard camera; in either case the suspect has no expectation of privacy on a public street. The interests are much different, however, in the home. Individuals have a strong expectation of privacy in their home, and invasive video footage of a home raid arguably should not end up on the evening news — or worse, the internet.

Additionally, there are concerns over misleading footage. By their very nature, the cameras show only a limited perspective. Many of the officer’s actions, and anything happening behind the officer, will not be recorded. There is a real danger of prejudice in showing a jury video of an incident that is literally from the officer’s perspective. Moreover, the cameras will not record constantly. Instead, officers are instructed to turn on the camera when they “make contact” with a member of the public and to turn them off at the conclusion of the incident. This discretion might invite abuse. Intentionally or unwittingly, officers could influence perception of an event by when they chose to begin and end recording. Given the considerable sway that video evidence can have over jurors, the courts will have to be increasingly vigilant about its admissibility.

As is often the case, the ability to capture, catalog, and comb through more data then ever before raises questions of whether the government should be doing so. Body cameras for police officers are neither the first nor last battle in the war between privacy and technology, but they are a significant step toward a ubiquitous surveillance state.

–Michael Griffin

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