Yesterday, I was reading an excellent post by Donut County Cop regarding Police Body Cams. This led me to think about my department’s use of body cameras…or our lack of use of them. There are many factors about the body cam that most people don’t think about. Citizens seem to believe the body cam is some sort of mythical piece of equipment that will solve all the world’s problems. As Donut County Cop showed in his post, this is not the case. In addition…what do you know about who gets to access to police body cams footage?
Be careful what you wish for…
In August of 2016, Spokane Washington resident, Cory Counts had a very unfortunate contact with the Spokane Police Department that ended up going viral. An apparently intoxicated Cory was arrested for disorderly conduct due to his drunken escapades. For many people it would end there. Cory however was surprised to find the Spokane Police Department posted the body cam footage of his jackassery on their Facebook page. It soon went viral and to Cory’s embarrassment, he wasn’t able to make up any stories about why he was arrested and how he was being harassed by Spokane PD and his rights were violated, etc.
Having his drunken antics aired for his friends, family, coworkers and boss to see, must have been an unpleasant event. Counts and his lawyer protested the release of the video in this article here. The release of this footage was perfectly legal, though I’m sure Cory wishes otherwise!
Citizens scream about all of the police needing body cams in order to “police the police.” What they don’t often think about is that body cam video can be more detrimental to the citizen/suspect than not having the video. Of course cops are fine with this. We love being able to show a jury what the meth sore covered tweeker looked like before he or she was able to dry out for a few months in a jail cell courtesy of the taxpayers.
The public records request…
Laws and procedures change from state to state and sometimes from department to department. In my state, Public Records requests are a very serious thing. Accommodation of public records requests legally have to be provided within a certain period of time. An agency that fails to meet the deadline receives a massive fine that can quickly grow to be financially crushing.
Personal Information – When requesting documents via a public records request, specific personal information will be redacted. This is not the case with the release of dash cam or body cam footage.
Anyone can request the video – Do you have a nosey neighbor, landlord or boss? How about an ex-spouse or even worse…a romantic interest that is not returned…also known as the “Creeper.” ANY footage can be requested. This provides anyone the ability to sit back with a bowl of popcorn and watch the screaming argument you had with your spouse, your brief attempt to commit suicide, the inside of your house after a burglary or just about any other contact.
One of the reasons my department has not started using body cams is just this. Believe it or not, most cops are concerned about your safety as well as your privacy. Until clarification is made to the law regarding body cam footage (in my state at least), the use of the police body cam poses a significant privacy risk for the public.
Jackassery – Lets face it…people are stupid. It doesn’t matter what your job is, your education, socioeconomic status, race, religion or age. ALL people can be stupid. Especially when drugs or alcohol are involved. Alcohol is the great equalizer…it turns everyone into an idiot. Think about that screaming argument with your wife, or that one time during Thanksgiving dinner when you got belligerently drunk and loud and the police showed up. Not your finest hour right? No harm done though! You played it off with the neighbors and swore everyone to secrecy…unless you are Cory Counts and your drunken jackassery goes viral. Do you really want to be that guy? It’s something to think about when discussing police body cams.
Show me the money…
Another problem with body cams is their exorbitant cost. Not of the hardware itself. There are many federal grants to help offset the costs of the hardware itself. Remember the public records request? Well somebody has to track down the footage, go through it, record it, disseminate it and handle every step of the public records request.
Public records requests are often used as a weapon against departments. It is not unusual for some jailhouse lawyer, constitutionalist, left wing nut or even a mentally ill individual who wants every email, MCT message, phone record or other scrap of paper that had been written on or even thought about using for communication. These massive requests will often stretch a department thin as they scramble to provide the information in time.
Evidence – Obviously the main purpose of body cam footage is to be utilized as evidence. Somebody has to correlate the data, make copies, transfer it to storage etc. As Donut County Cop stated, this is a time and work intensive process.
After factoring the sheer amount of data involved, storage, making copies, etc, my department determined we would need to HIRE SIX PEOPLE just to handle the extra work associated with the body cam data, fulfil public records requests, evidence and storage. For a department with a critical shortage of bodies on the road, this was just not fiscally possible.
While I absolutely appreciate the usefulness of the body cam, there ARE problems associated with them. I would love to hear about how some other agencies handles the problems associated with the body cams or has a point I haven’t brought up. Feel free to let me know!
Also published on Medium.