How Police Body Cameras Work

Police Body Cameras — and the Privacy Problem

While intended to record the actions of police, recording the police means recording the civilians they interact with. Few people actually see the vast majority of the footage — police might view it while preparing their reports, and a clip that ends up being pertinent to an investigation might be widely viewed — but it's still there, and both the legalities and the long-term consequences of this new type of surveillance are unclear [source: Weiner].

How do two-party consent rules apply in the body-camera context? How will law-enforcement and government agencies use the countless terabytes of video down the road? Will members of the community decide not to approach officers with tips if they know they'll be recorded? Will domestic-violence victims be less likely to seek help?

Some officers can turn the cameras off in highly sensitive situations — hospital interviews, for instance, or car accidents with injuries, both of which can have medical-confidentiality implications in additional to personal-privacy concerns [sources: Weiner, Wells]. Some departments require that officers offer to stop recording when they enter a private residence [source: Weiner].

The privacy of the officers is at risk, too. Officers can forget to turn off their cameras in the bathroom [source: Wells]. Their private conversations with co-workers might be recorded [source: Stanley].

Or much worse. In 2014, an Arizona officer responding to a domestic-dispute call ended up recording his own murder. The officer's body camera was filming when a man he was questioning pulled out a gun and shot him. Under Arizona law, the police department was forced to release an edited version of the video to media outlets when they requested it [source: Kaste].

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) advocates requiring permission from those filmed before a video can be released. It also sees redaction capabilities as essential, exemplified in the case of an Albuquerque officer who had his body camera running when he responded to a scene and found a child being strangled. Under New Mexico law, the police had to release the video when media outlets requested it [source: Weiner]. (It's actually rare for states' open-records laws to apply to this type of record, though, at least according to the Harvard Law Review.)

In the end, that the ACLU supports body-camera programs even conditionally speaks to the depth of dissatisfaction with the current state of policing. But whether body cameras will affect real change is uncertain.