With media attention focusing on police violence, many cities are looking to expand the use of police body cameras. Cities using body cameras hope that recording officers’ encounters with suspects will curb police brutality, make officers accountable for their excessive force, and provide everyone with more information about what happened. But the use of police body cameras is still a fairly new phenomenon, and the policies concerning how the resulting videos can be used are still evolving, so it is hard to know what change the cameras will bring about.

Police body cameras are small cameras attached to an officer’s clothing, helmet or glasses. They are designed to capture footage of arrests, traffic stops, or any other encounter between the police and the public. The idea is that if an officer’s every interaction with the public is recorded, this will be a win-win situation for both the good cops and the public: officers who follow the law and do not brutalize suspects will have the protection of a recording, to defend any actions they deem necessary; and when horrifying events happen at the hands of police officers – Freddie Gray, Walter Scott, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice – citizens will have a recording that helps make sense of what happened.

The United States Justice Department announced this month its $20 million pilot program for police body cameras, part of the $75 million Body Worn Camera Partnership Program. These police body camera programs are voluntary, and how they will be implemented varies from city to city, police department to police department. In Chicago, for instance, police body cameras will only be worn by those officers who volunteer to wear them. Thus, although attorneys at Loevy & Loevy have uncovered numerous Chicago Police officers who have had scores of complaints made against them for police brutality and excessive force, presumably those violent officers are not the ones who would sign up to voluntarily wear a body camera to record their interactions.

One of the big questions raised by new police body camera programs is what happens to the videos. To illustrate the problem consider the case of Laquan McDonald, the black teenager shot six times by a Chicago police officer in October. The City agreed to pay the family $5 million – before the family even filed a lawsuit – rather than release the police car dashboard camera footage showing the boy walking away from police officers when they jumped out of a car and gunned him down. The Department did not even show the video to the Aldermen who were called upon to approve the $5 million settlement. So, Chicago’s program shows that just having the video recording is not enough. There must also be policies in place establishing when the public and the victims are entitled to see the videos. Cities need policies about how to store the videos, how to handle public records requests, and how to address privacy concerns.

Not every city acts as if it has as much to hide as Chicago. The City of Seattle, for instance, has launched a Youtube channel to air police dashboard and body camera video footage, while blurring the citizens’ faces to protect the privacy of the individuals involved. The Seattle Police Department says it has collected more than 1.5 million videos (364 terabytes of space) over the past five years, including dashboard camera videos, 911 responses, and interviews with victims, witnesses and suspects. On average, the Department burns 7,000 DVDs each month to meet requests from citizens, prosecutors, and defense attorneys. The differences between Chicago and Seattle make it clear that as cities start recording police interactions, we as a society need to figure out who decides what belongs in the public sphere and how to get it there.

Until then, victims of police brutality often must rely instead on bystander videos, security camera footage, police dashboard camera footage, and good old fashioned witnesses. If you or someone you know has been victimized by the police, please let us help you protect your rights. Read about our success stories or send us a private message.

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