Welcome Body Cams – Here’s the Rules

In recent police-suspect encounters, the public’s accurate understanding of the events hinges on whether a video recording is available.  While witnesses may be plentiful, they seldom have that rarest of attributes, an excellent and unbiased memory.  Until a credible record of events is available, the public tends to shape a story from their imagination and biases, favoring either the comments of the police or of the suspect, or a partisan TV commenter/activist.  Where a police-worn body cam records the encounter, that unbiased record of events tends to quench and satisfy the public’s thirst for information.

Unless a video recording reveals misbehavior by the police, the media and public will quickly lose interest.  Misbehavior by a suspect is so banal that it rarely earns coverage in more than one news cycle.  If the public relied on clock-time of media coverage, they would conclude that police misbehavior is the most dominant form of crime.  If allowed to, body cam recordings will help correct that misimpression. Some activists will object to reporters’ access to body cam recordings because suspects’ misbehavior will reduce public sympathy for perpetrators.

Body cam use is in its infancy and some important policies for their use by police are unsettled.  In a credible study, body cam use was shown to cut use of police force by 50% and to cut civilian complaints by nearly 90%.  Body cams will eventually be available on each patrolling officer, but that is not yet the case.

Today, the officer wearing a body cam can usually decide when to switch on the camera and when to switch it off.   In effect, the officer decides how much recording of events will be kept and submitted for evidence.  The offered justifications for this “editing” are: 1) while in a private home, deference to privacy requires it; and 2) recordings that contain no humans in the image would be a waste of storage and battery life.

Some body cameras are always on, but they retain only 30 seconds in the video buffer, allowing the officer to start an intentional recording 30 seconds “before” the start button is hit.  This feature can capture the events leading to a significant event, but the recording gap before that could be construed as “editing” the evidence.  To eradicate the inevitable suspicion that editing changes the evidence, the camera should run continuously.

A contentious issue may be who gets access to body cam recordings and which uses of those recordings are legitimate. A body cam recording is a just record of reality, not of opinion, not of dogma. While the police recording may ruffle someone’s preferred state of privacy, it is unbiased and captured by a public safety officer in pursuit of legitimate duties.  That’s not a perfect excuse for privacy violation, but it’s pretty good.

There are entirely too many mistruths being foisted on the public to tolerate suppression of an unbiased record of reality.  Body cam recordings will likely be treated differently in Europe where the imaginary “right to be forgotten” is taking root.  But in the US, our rules should allow for any judge to permit anyone who is in the video, or who represents anyone in the video recording to have access to a copy of that body cam recording.  Any genuine news reporter should also be permitted routine access and no government agency (e.g. NSA, FBI, DHS or state-equivalents), should be permitted to block access to a body cam recording.