A study updated this week concluded that of 50 United States police departments with body cam policies, none of them are effectively and appropriately implementing these policies. Notably, the police department in Ferguson, Missouri, failed to meet even the minimum qualifications in any of the areas the study took into account.
“Police Worn Body Cameras: A Policy Scorecard” found that just having the equipment or policies isn’t enough to achieve positive change.
“Transparency and accountability doesn’t come automatically just because a police department has decided to buy cameras,” said Harlan Yu, principal of Upturn, the organization that authored the study.
The study measured policies on eight key areas and states how departments can achieve a green the best ranking in each:
Policy Available whether the policy is stated and clearly accessible on the department’s website
Officer Discretion whether the policy states when an officer is required to have his or her camera on
Personal Privacy whether some individuals (such as victims of sex crimes) cannot be recorded without consent
Officer Review whether officers are required, for all incidents, to provide their written statements prior to viewing footage
Footage Retention whether unused footage is required to be deleted after six months
Footage Misuse whether all access to footage must be monitored and authorized and footage cannot be tampered with
Footage Access whether people filing complaints against an officer are entitled to view the footage
Biometric Use whether biometric technologies (such as facial recognition) used for identification are strictly limited
Departments can also score red, meaning the department’s policy does not address the issue in question or goes against the standards set by the study’s conductors; yellow, meaning officers are only required in some incidents to file a written report prior to viewing relevant footage; or gray, meaning this information is not yet public.
Ferguson scored red in all eight areas.
None of the 50 cities scored green for “Officer Review.” Six obtained a yellow rank, and four cities scored gray.
42 of the 68 “major city” departments have policies in place. Three more Aurora, Detroit and Pittsburgh have not yet released their policies to the public.
Almost half of the departments that have policies in place do not have their policies easily accessible to the public.
In addition to Ferguson, Fresno, California, also scored red in all eight areas.
Baltimore received a score of green only under “Footage Misuse” and was ranked red for “Policy Available,” “Footage Retention” and “Footage Access.” All other areas were yellow.
Aurora, Baton Rouge, Detroit and Pittsburgh all do not have policies available on their websites.
Only Boston scored green for “Biometric Use.” The majority of cities ranked red, with only five cities in yellow and four in gray.
The study was conducted for The Leadership Conference of Civil and Human Rights coalition by Upturn, a company based in Washington, D.C., that analyzes how technology impacts social issues. It was initially released in November but was updated this month to account for new and updated policies.
“Without carefully crafted policy safeguards, these devices could become instruments of injustice rather than tools of accountability,” said Wade Henderson, president and chief executive officer of the coalition, in a statement.
Upturn concluded that simply instating these policies is not enough to make them effective and, when implemented incorrectly, the use of body cams may do more harm than good.
“Body cameras carry the promise of officer accountability, but accountability is far from automatic,” Yu said.
The call for police accountability began with the Ferguson police in 2014, when Michael Brown was fatally shot by a police officer. Some eyewitness accounts did not match up with reports from Darren Wilson, the officer who shot Brown, which left many questions about the shooting unanswered.
Body Cam Debate
As police-related deaths of Black men have dominated headlines over the past couple of years, video footage has frequently played a large role, which has pushed for more people to call on departments to require officers to wear cameras. But in practice, the cameras are not always as effective as intended. In some cases, witnesses have been the ones to record incidents, often using cellphones.
In Baton Rouge, 37-year-old Alton Sterling was shot and killed by a police officer last month. The two officers involved were both wearing body cameras, but the cameras fell off during the struggle and did not capture the shooting. Cellphone video captured the disturbing events and proved that, contrary to police allegations, Sterling was not holding a gun at the time he was shot.
Cellphone video also captured the shooting death of Walter Scott in 2015 by a former officer. The video showed that Slager lied in his initial account of the shooting.
“Slager intentionally misled investigators by claiming Scott was coming toward him with a Taser at the time that Slager fired his weapon, when in truth, Scott was running away,” the Justice Department said in a statement. Slager now faces federal charges.