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How to address privacy issues in your police body camera policy

Here’s how to write a policy that keeps the privacy rights of citizens and cops in mind

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How to address privacy issues in your police body camera policy

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By PoliceOne BrandFocus Staff

Police departments are widely adopting body cameras to capture evidence and to provide a record of an incident and protect themselves if something goes wrong. But that same video can negatively affect citizens and cops by invading their privacy if departments don't have sound policies and the right technology in place

New technologies like VIEVU's Automated Video Redaction automatically blur all faces captured on video, saving time and hassle. (Vievu Image)
New technologies like VIEVU's Automated Video Redaction automatically blur all faces captured on video, saving time and hassle. (Vievu Image)

There are varying viewpoints on how to approach privacy considerations. Here are a few privacy issues the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) and American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) suggest departments address in their bodycam policies.

1. Determining when the camera is turned on or off can affect the privacy of citizens and cops.

Standards for setting recording parameters are all over the place, said Chuck Canterbury, national president of the FOP, an organization representing 325,000 U.S. police officers.

Canterbury said some agencies mandate continuous recording, while others only require it during a contact situation or certain pre-established incidents.

“With continuous recording, there are issues that need to be addressed,” he said.

For example, Canterbury said continuous recording leaves officers’ and citizens’ privacy violated.

“Think of officers taking care of bodily functions or talking to a spouse on a cell phone, interviewing a rape victim or a crime in a residence where everything is being recorded,” he said. “Video recordings invade privacy in these cases.”

The FOP offers a best practices document that addresses when to turn on a body camera, including a recommendation that departments develop a list of situations in which activation is required.

However, Canterbury recommends a policy state that an officer has discretion to manually activate the system any time he or she believes it would be appropriate.

2. Establishing storage guidelines for recorded video provides transparency and recourse for citizens.

Currently, there are no state laws that establish guidelines on when a department should delete recorded videos from body-worn cameras, said Chad Marlow, advocacy and policy counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

“State legislators have the ability to step in and pass laws that dictate how long certain videos should be retained,” Marlow said. “But in the absence of them doing so, it really is left to each individual department to make up their own rules.”

As a result, police departments are developing their own policies regarding the length of time they should hold onto these videos. Marlow said the ACLU’s position is that all videos should be retained for at least six months.

Marlow recommended that videos flagged because of an officer’s use of force, a specific crime or a complaint against a police officer be kept for at least three years.

Canterbury said civil liability cases usually extend to two years. So he suggested law enforcement agencies keep video for at least that long or until a case has been closed.

“There isn’t a right or wrong answer. If a video is evidentiary in a criminal case it has to be kept until adjudication,” he said. “So you can’t really have a timeline—it has to be when the case is fully adjudicated.”

3. Setting up redaction policies is a must to protect the privacy of victims and confidential informants.

When requests are sent to police departments to view footage from body-worn cameras, many will redact people’s faces and other identifiable information from videos to protect their privacy.

This can be done if it does not detract from the value of the video, Marlow suggested.

“Using redaction to protect a citizen’s privacy is beneficial if one can still determine what’s going on in the video,” he said.

Canterbury said redaction rules depend on the state you live in. He recommended working with a city attorney on the issue to determine the rules in your state.

However, there are universal video redaction considerations.

“State laws vary, but if you are interviewing an 11-year old rape victim… that is shielded by law in every state and the video is going to have to be redacted,” he said. “Confidential informants… you would put their lives at jeopardy if not redacted so it is important to map out this privacy consideration in your policy.”

Fortunately, there are new technologies available to law enforcement - including VIEVU's Automated Video Redaction (AVR) offering - that can automatically blur faces and objects recorded on body worn cameras in order to protect the privacy and identity of victims, innocent bystanders, minors and undercover police officers. This makes it much easier to comply with established policies, in addition to saving time spent manually redacting videos.

4. Notifying the public that they are being recorded helps avoid the perception their privacy is being violated.

Police departments’ policies should establish rules for when officers should inform the public or an assailant that they are being recorded. This not only improves behavior but also shows a regard for bystanders’ privacy.

A recent report by the Police Executive Research Forum noted that body-worn cameras have helped reduce negative complaints and incidents between the police and the public, while also reducing the complaints of personal violations of privacy against departments.

In a normal traffic stop, alerting a suspect and bystanders that they are being recorded would be helpful. But Canterbury warned it is unrealistic in every emergency situation.

“Take a robbery,” he said. “A cop doesn’t have the time to yell out ‘this is being recorded’ to a suspect, they just need to take action.”

As police departments continue to implement body-worn cameras in their departments, they also need to ensure they develop policies with privacy guidelines that can improve transparency as well as accountability.

For more information about body cameras, visit VIEVU or Safariland.

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