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Should Police Departments Control Body Camera Footage?

Two weeks after a Minneapolis police officer fatally shot an Australian woman in the alley behind her house after she called 911 to report a possible sexual assault, the Minneapolis Police Department expanded its policy regarding when officers must activate their body cameras.

The new policy requires police officers to turn on body cameras prior to “any contact with a reporting person, victim, suspect or witness.” The July 15 shooting of Justine Ruszcyk, 40, was not filmed by the two officers who responded to the scene. Both officers were wearing department-issued body cameras, but neither one activated his camera.

“What good is a camera if it’s not being used when it may be needed the most?” acting Minneapolis police chief Medaria Arradondo said when she announced the new policy. (Minneapolis Police Chief Janee Harteau was forced to resign in the wake of the shooting.)

Who Should Have Access To Camera Footage?

A recent article called the emergence of police body cameras “one of the fastest technological upgrades in policing history.” The Department of Homeland Security reports that 95 percent of the country’s police departments are planning to implement body cameras and 20 percent already have.

Nationwide, both police departments and citizen activists have endorsed the adoption of police body cameras as a means to create more transparency regarding police officers’ interactions with the public. However, there is some debate about who should control access to the video that is captured by these cameras.

Alex Vitale, director of the Policing and Social Justice Project at Brooklyn College, says police body camera video should not be controlled by police departments. Vitale argues there have been too many incidents when police departments did not release video after actions of their officers came under question. He proposes turning video footage over to a third-party public entity.

Cameras Also Raise Privacy Concerns

In an opinion piece written for the Gotham Gazette, which is published by the government watchdog group Citizens Union Foundation of the City of New York, Vitale also raises concerns about uncontrolled and illegal police surveillance resulting from expanded use of body cameras.

The big data capabilities created by thousands of hours of police video footage, combined with emerging technological advances such as facial recognition software, could lead to unchecked surveillance and targeting. “There is a long history of police misusing such databases,” Vitale states.

Handing video footage over to an independent civilian agency is one way to minimize concerns about police abuses, he adds. This would give defense attorneys equal access to footage, putting all parties in the justice system on a level playing field.

In summarizing his argument for third-party control of police video footage, Vitale cites a quote from Michael Sisitzky of the New York Civil Liberties Union: ““Public support for body cameras will not last if the technology becomes just another gadget to help police and prosecutors, instead of a tool for meaningful reform of police practices.”

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