Testimony on Body-Worn Cameras by Wade Henderson for Senate Judiciary Committee Hearing

Media 05.19,15

WASHINGTON – Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, released the following testimony, as prepared, that he will deliver at today’s 2:30 p.m. hearing of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism entitled “Body Cameras: Can Technology Increase Protection for Law Enforcement Officers and the Public?” The hearing will be broadcast live on C-Span 3. Last week, The Leadership Conference released a set of principles for the deployment of body-worn cameras with a coalition of 34 civil rights, privacy, and media rights organizations:

“Over the last year we’ve seen a growing movement to address policing practices that have a disproportionate impact on low-income communities, communities of color, and African Americans in particular. These practices, like discriminatory profiling, excessive use of force, and both explicit and implicit racial bias in law enforcement, have framed the national debate around police reform and prompted a national conversation on the use of technology, specifically body-worn cameras, as one possible means to enhance accountability and transparency in policing.

Americans across the nation have been transfixed by a series of video clips recorded by concerned citizens that capture tragic encounters between police and the people they serve. 

Not since the brutal images of the Bloody Sunday marchers being savagely beaten in Selma, Alabama were broadcast across the nation 50 years ago, have we seen video make such a profound impact on our nation’s public discourse. Prior to that broadcast, the Voting Rights Act did not even exist, but those images inspired the nation to write and pass the VRA less than five months later.   

Today’s citizen-recorded videos have inspired the nation once again. When one hears Eric Garner’s plea that he ‘can’t breathe’ or sees Walter Scott being shot from behind, it’s hard not to be moved. Chairman Graham, you spoke for millions, and certainly for me, when you described the video of Walter Scott’s killing in North Charleston as ‘horrific,’ and ‘difficult to watch.’

There is a temptation to create a false equivalence between these citizen-recorded videos and body-worn cameras operated by law enforcement. I urge the committee not to give in to this temptation because body-worn cameras won’t be operated by concerned citizens and won’t be recording officers; they will instead be directed at members of the community.

That’s why last Friday, The Leadership Conference joined with a broad coalition of civil rights, privacy, and media rights organizations to release shared civil rights principles for the use of body-worn cameras by law enforcement. These principles, which I would like to introduce into the record, recognize that cameras are just a tool, not a substitute for broader reforms of policing practices. They point out that, ‘without carefully crafted policy safeguards in place, there is a real risk that these new devices could become instruments of injustice, rather than tools for accountability.’

That’s why it’s so important that when cameras are deployed, it’s with a set of clear and narrowly defined purposes and that policies governing their use are developed in concert with public stakeholders.

These cameras should be tools of accountability for police encounters — not face or body scanners for everyone who walks by on the street. Facial recognition and other biometric technologies must be carefully limited: if those technologies are used together with body cameras, it will actually intensify stark disparities in surveillance in more heavily policed communities of color.

Early experiences in pilot programs suggest that without strong rules, officers won’t necessarily record when they should. For that reason, it’s vitally important that departments impose stringent discipline on officers who fail to record encounters that are supposed to be on camera.

Finally, our principles call for a prohibition on officers viewing footage until after their reports are filed.

Footage can be misleading or incomplete. That’s why other sources of evidence, including the officer’s own independent recollection of an incident, must be preserved. Allowing officers to preview footage provides an opportunity to conform reports to what the video appears to show, rather than what the officer recollects. Moreover, there is a risk that the officer’s report and the video may seem to confirm each other independently, when they really aren’t independent at all.

The Leadership Conference urges federal, state and local governments, as well as individual police departments, to consider our principles as they develop and implement body-worn camera policies and programs. Without the appropriate safeguards, we are at risk of compounding the very problems in policing that we are seeking to fix.

Thank you for your consideration. I look forward to your questions.”

Wade Henderson is president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a coalition charged by its diverse membership of more than 200 national organizations to promote and protect the rights of all persons in the United States. The Leadership Conference works toward an America as good as its ideals. For more information on The Leadership Conference and its 200-plus member organizations, visit www.civilrights.org.