Body Cameras And Privacy — Where Do You Draw The Line?

del PozoBy Chief Brandon del Pozo
Burlington (VT) Police Department

Since an officer in my police department was brought under suspicion of perjury for statements he made when he thought his police body camera was turned off, some of our constituents have been adamant in calling for a policy that police officers cannot turn off their body cameras at all while on duty. They feel this will be an effective way to detect and deter misconduct and corruption.

It is a deeply flawed idea, and we have been clear in our opposition to it.

There should be a good discussion about when police ought to be required to activate cameras, but the idea that they should always have them on is untenable for both the police and the community.

  • Police body cameras that cannot be turned off as a matter of policy will capture the private conversations of anyone in earshot of the camera.
  • They will create surveillance footage of people in private and semi-private places going about their lives as police officers move about them.
  • They will capture confidential conversations with people who want to tell the police where the criminals are on their block.
  • They will capture the police discussing the lawful but sensitive tactics they use to investigate criminals and apprehend them.
  • They will capture privileged conversations with attorneys, and the identities of child crime victims or people in states of compromised dignity.
  • They will capture footage of cops going to the bathroom, eating lunch, and having cell phone conversations with their loved ones or getting a call from the doctor.

The most vocal opponent of a police body camera that cannot be turned off that I am aware of is the American Civil Liberties Union. I agree with them in principle, even if we will disagree on the particulars.

I also believe that the privacy concerns they worry about with these cameras apply to all Americans, including the American police officers who are made to wear them as a condition of protecting and serving their communities.

Not only are there professional reasons for police being able to turn off their cameras, but there are also personal ones. Officers are human beings and every day on duty they have personal interactions and moments apart from their professional lives. They deserve to be able to create a private space for them.

I’m not sure people who advocate for body cameras that can’t be turned off have fully considered the implications of the argument they are making: that the omni-surveillance of a group of people who are overwhelmingly innocent will be effective in deterring or detecting the small remainder who are not.

This is certainly an argument someone can make, and it has been made in many cases before.

It has been made to support the National Security Agency’s collection of cell phone metadata, the installation of surveillance cameras, sensors and license plate readers of every kind in public space, and the stopping and frisking of hundreds of thousands of people a year in New York City when only a tiny fraction of them were found to have a weapon or committed a crime.

Again, the biggest opponent of the rationale for this argument about omni-surveillance is the ACLU. I am not passing judgment on this type of argument here, or on the examples offered above. The point I am making is that I am surprised to see people who I know have aligned with the ACLU’s position in these other cases now willing to scuttle this logic to call for omni-surveillance of the police and in turn everyone around them because of their perceptions about the propensity for police officers to engage in misconduct.

There is the worry that allowing an officer to wear a body camera that can be turned off will allow some crooked officers to go undeterred or undetected. That is a legitimate worry; it could happen, but it is the trade-off we make in every case in which we do not conduct omni-surveillance because we recognize a privacy concern or some other legitimate personal or professional reason for a person to escape the lens of a camera.

It is a very American trade-off in my opinion.

We would have better journalism, better government and better legal proceedings if reporters, politicians and lawyers had to conduct constant, mandatory surveillance on themselves during their entire work day.

We’d certainly deter and catch more instances of crime and professional misconduct in these professions that form the very core of our civic society than we do now.

But we don’t require this measure of these professionals for the very same reasons we can’t require a cop to attach a camera to his uniform and never turn it off.

Nearly all police departments who have cameras have deployed them voluntarily. They were never meant to become an albatross of ever-expanding intrusions into an officer’s work life and privacy.

The requirement of my agency to have our officers film their professional encounters with citizens and other key moments in police activities and investigations has already delivered a valuable public good; it has moderated the behavior of officers and citizens and captured evidence that has made the judicial system more confident in its decisions.

It has provided evidence of police misconduct and corruption as well.

Going much further than this, however, would derail the delivery of this good for at least two reasons.

First, it would be such a profound change of working conditions for my police officers that their cameras would have to be placed back in their docking stations until the new terms of their work could be negotiated in an agreement with their union. It would be interesting to see what additional compensation they might require to agree to this type of pervasive self-surveillance.

Second, it would signal the presumption that despite all of the troubling collateral consequences it would bring about, enough police officers can be presumed guilty of something to such a degree that this type of surveillance is worth those consequences.
Of course, this just isn’t true, but it would send the signal to the men and women we need as the next generation of police officers that if they were to enter policing they would be entering a den of potential criminals who always bear close watching.


Brandon del Pozo is the Chief of Police of Burlington, Vt. Prior to this post, he served for 19 years in the NYPD. He is a Police Foundation executive fellow.

10 Comments to "Body Cameras And Privacy — Where Do You Draw The Line?"

  1. Reply jim e October 14, 2018 at 1:38 pm

    The difference is…..the other professions listed don’t carry guns.

    • Reply Theodore MacLaughlin October 26, 2018 at 11:16 pm

      Jim e,

      The difference is… the other professions listed don’t carry guns?? Really, that is your answer to this argument? Police Officers volunteer to do a job that includes saving the lives of people they have never met before or, in some cases, sacrificing their lives in the attempt. It’s people like you that say, “Oh but that’s what they signed up for”. But when they encounter someone who makes the decision to fight the officer or pull a gun, or reach for one and refuse to follow the officers directions to stop, forcing the officer to shoot them. That is when the media come out and makes the officer look like a criminal and the criminal a victim. Those others that are listed have something worse than a gun, it’s called public opinion, they can hold it high over someone’s head and drop it harder and faster than any bullet can travel. If a police officer does something wrong I will be right there and pull the lever myself, but I will not allow anyone to stomp on a cop when the media is wrongly accusing them.

      • Reply roger moore June 2, 2020 at 12:43 pm

        Volunteer? this is a paid position, well paid. But yes, that is what they signed up for, why they get paid so well, early retirement and pension etc. It’s literally part of the job. If something does go wrong you get full parades. The arguments listed above are about protecting “privacy” but not about protecting the lives of the public or the officers. Privacy is an illusion. Cameras that have a “snooze” button but automatically come back on would great. Do you think the media has a bias against police? Why? who would that benefit?

  2. Reply Theodore MacLaughlin October 26, 2018 at 11:00 pm

    Chief I couldn’t agree more, cops have enough to worrry about every time they leave their homes without having a body cam that videos everything they do or say even when they don’t activate it. Keep fighting for your Officers, thats what a great Chief does.

  3. Reply Kelly April 21, 2020 at 4:25 pm

    it is a very delicate balance… have any of the officers worked with civilians and the ACLU to find solutions to this that might work to protect police officers as well as citizens… It’s become very difficult our judicial system it’s supposed to leave the burden of proof on the state and in many instances I’ve seen it disregarded I have the utmost respect for police officers that do risk their lives and just honestly care about their communities and families… but I will say that since I’ve have been a victim of abuse of power it’s very hard for somebody that hasn’t gone through it to see how something seemingly inconsequential can literally affect somebody’s life forever. I won’t go into details but when I am more terrified of a police officer then criminals it made me truly think about why that is … Abuses of power that go blatantly unchecked and seemingly the old boys club as well as no proper recourse or safety or anonymity to report these issues . I don’t feel
    comfortable working with my local department to find solutions to some of the issues that are plaguing our cities and towns… And I feel that instead of a lot of money going into militarized weapons that I would love to see more training and education that these officers can take with them throughout their life training like how to deal with people with mental health issues in a crisis instead of escalating situations or autism understanding different cultures and also a basic understanding of laws and how they apply one of the biggest things I find is that officers aren’t trade in enough laws or statutes and they rely on a book My local town also relies on informants and turns and I to substance abuse as long as those informants provide information. also I’m finding that stress of the position tends to make officers less objective and more subjective to incorrect biases or personal beliefs when it’s very important to stay objective that would make these officers some of the best of the country. If they truly wanted to serve and protect work with the people that they deem the lowest of the low… Stop sponsoring for profit jails ! When did we make prison a business I know it was long ago but it’s so much more prevalent and frankly so disappointing that the world looks at the inhumanity
    When did we stop realizing that we can’t change anybody but ourselves.. People are more likely to follow and respect somebody that walks the talk.

  4. Reply Garrett S Williams May 28, 2020 at 9:27 pm

    What I don’t understand is why can’t we have the watch commanders in charge of when the cameras are turned on. Or better yet have everything automated so when they arrive on a call the camera turns on. Then when the commander confirms the situation is done or the arrest is over headquarters turns them back off. Please don’t turn your head to the advancements in technology. Technology is here for a solution and it seems like your just coming up with excuses. The cameras can be turned off and on remotely by higher ranking and if the officer needs to take a Piss or talk to his family he can call in and request a temporary shut off period. The cameras should be on during every single incident. Think of the potential for training think of the potential for moving forward as a new and better way of enforcement. I’m not being disrespectful or on anyone’s side of the opinion I’m clearly stating that you have been given a gift of technology and of course we wield it the wrong way. Yes lawyers will have less work yes officers will be annoyed but just the simple fact off this technology could change a lot and I mean a lot. And the end of the day Chief if your kid had an officers knee on his neck I’m sure you would want all cameras rolling. God Speed

  5. Reply cJ May 29, 2020 at 9:20 am

    What happen to is you don’t have anything to hide. And if they can do warrantless wiretapping to citizens why can’t cops be recorded. The videos wouldn’t be freely available they are for reviewing. Also it will protect police from ppl lying about misconduct. Also there are jobs with extensive background checks but ppl sign up for it. Police are giving authority that is often abused we need a check on it. It’s amazing how many times police don’t have their body cam on then what’s the point if the person it is monitoring can control it. It’s like a person on probation/parole gets to setup when and where to meet their PO.

  6. Reply Jaime S June 3, 2020 at 6:27 pm

    I don’t understand what it is that honest cops would have to be afraid of. In many places of employment, folks are being filmed as a deterrent to theft. It’s not like someone will be actively monitoring the footage all the time. Who has access to the footage could be limited; I have no problem with a subpoena being required to access it. But, for both the community and the officer’s safety, cameras should be worn and recording. The footage is not public record. Their ‘personal moments’ or meetings with informants or victims will not be publicly accessible. But, if someone accuses a cop of planting evidence, there should be someone trusted who can go back and review the footage for a particular block of time. Unless a cop is being investigated, there is no reason for any cops body cam footage to be reviewed, except as part of random periodical reviews of arrests performed by supervisors–again, limiting the viewer to the arresting footage only. There are plenty of acceptable limitations that could be put in place to protect the officers privacy. But there are too many examples of officers using excessive force against citizens, refusing to hear facts, etc., for this not to be used. When I comes to my word vs a cop’s, I know I will lose–and I’m a white female who has never been arrested or had any encounters with police beyond a speeding ticket. Officers know this, too. Too many people have had experiences with officers abusing that fact (I have 2 different friends who were fondled by cops who “didn’t want to have to give them a ticket,” one was semi-ok with the tit for tat (literally), the other very much was not) to not implement body cams.

  7. Reply Phoebe Le June 6, 2020 at 10:19 am

    I can understand the argument that having the camera on at All time will leave no privacy for anyone, and officers are human beings too.
    However, it has become quite convenient that when a dispute comes up, there’s no evidence even though police officers are equipped for that. Wouldn’t have the camera on when during an encounter would actually help the officer if he/she has nothing to hide? There are officers who misconduct, and there are civilians who file false claims against the police. At the very least, officers should be trained to turn on the cameras as they approach a scene.

  8. Reply Dennis Smith August 27, 2020 at 4:04 pm

    I hear & see both sides of the argument. A compromise then, every interaction with a perception of a interaction with a person, (meaning, a traffic stop, responding from a police dispatch, a officer’s viewing of a crime, suspected of a crime, investigation) not just saying hello or having lunch, or private conversation, but any inter – action that the civilian could get in trouble. If the officer’s body cam is not turned on to what rules of engagement the powers at be have established, that said officer would be penalized 3 month’s off with no pay. Let them have on – off abilities, but if there is an inter – action with citizen and their body cam did not record, then penalize them.

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