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.

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