By Bryce Clayton Newell, author of Police Visibility: Privacy, Surveillance, and the False Promise of Body-Worn Cameras

Police body-worn cameras do have the potential to make police work, including misconduct and police violence, more visible. However, they can also lead to significant invasions of individual privacy.

It was the summer of 2014 when I began studying the adoption and use of body-worn cameras by two municipal police agencies in Washington State. Over the next few years, I spent many hours riding in patrol vehicles and hanging out at police stations, interviewing officers and observing them while they worked. I also administered surveys of police officer perceptions of these cameras. One of the most striking findings from my research was that these body cameras held the potential to invade the most private and sensitive moments of people’s lives—and the same laws that enabled oversight and accountability of the police also forced private citizens into the public view, often with little or no corresponding social benefit.

In my new book Police Visibility: Privacy, Surveillance, and the False Promise of Body-Worn Cameras, I refer to this unintended consequence as collateral visibility. There was no need to make these civilians visible, but the law — combined with these cameras— did just that. The most desperate moments of citizens’ lives became available to anyone who wanted to watch on social media.

Body-worn cameras have been issued to police all over the United States, with a patchwork of regulations and laws governing their operation and the recorded video. The goal is often to make officers accountable for their actions, but their effectiveness at doing so has been questioned. Opinions also differ on when body camera footage should be made public. And, even when it is, interpreting what the footage depicts is not always a straight forward and objective exercise.

Minneapolis, Minnesota, police officer wearing a body-worn camera. Tony Webster/Flickr Licensed under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license.

Within weeks of adopting these cameras, both agencies I was working with received blanket freedom of information requests from an anonymous requestor for all of their body-worn camera footage. Shortly thereafter, the departments began to release footage to this individual, who then posted these videos to a publicly accessible YouTube channel. The state Public Records Act required such disclosure, and largely foreclosed any ability of the agencies to redact sensitive personal information related to private citizens captured on this footage. As a consequence, a patrol officer in one of these departments told me, “I personally would never provide my personal information to an officer with a camera. It all ends up on the internet. That is wrong, and unsafe.”

A few examples of the videos recorded by officers I met that were posted to online social media sites, included an interview with a young woman detained and questioned during a prostitution sting, individuals stumbling over the sidewalk during sobriety tests after being pulled over, and various arrests. None of these specific incidents ever received a complaint about the officers involved and the video does not appear to show any police misconduct. Yet, the law required that they be released to anyone who wanted them. Doing so made these private individuals much more visible than the police officers who recorded them.

Screen captures from a police body camera video recorded during a police contact, and subsequent foot chase and arrest. I have obscured faces.
Screen capture from police body camera video recorded during a prostitution sting, after it appeared on YouTube.com. I obscured the young woman’s face myself.
Screen capture from police body camera video recorded during a sobriety test in Bellingham, Washington, after it appeared on YouTube.com.

Police body-worn cameras do have the potential to make police work, including misconduct and police violence, more visible. This may also increase police accountability and even decrease rates at which officers use force (although the existing empirical evidence on this question is full of contradictory findings, indicating that context matters a lot to achieving these outcomes). However, they can also lead to significant invasions of individual privacy.

Besides questions of police accountability and transparency, we must also consider the social costs of deploying these cameras into our communities, especially those communities already subjected to heightened police surveillance. When body cameras are introduced, careful attention to existing laws and policies, including public records laws, can help minimize harm to the public while increasing the transparency of police work. Just as videos of Black peoples’ deaths at the hands of the police should be treated with more care, the decision to make police video that captures sensitive and traumatic moments of peoples’ lives public should be a measured and consider one. In my view, there is little need to force civilians onto the public stage simply because they are contacted by a police officer.

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