Civil Rights, Privacy, and Media Rights Organizations Weigh in on Use of Body-Worn Cameras

With communities across the country calling for greater accountability of local law enforcement, a coalition of 34 civil rights, privacy, and media rights organizations on May 15 released shared civil rights principles for the use of body-worn cameras.

To ensure mobile cameras are used to help eradicate discriminatory policing and protect civil rights, the principles recommend that camera policies are developed publicly and that certain footage is made available to the public and the press. Police departments should also commit to a set of well-defined purposes for camera use and specify clear operational policies for recording, retention, and access.

“These guidelines can help ensure that cameras are tools for accountability—not instruments of injustice,” said Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

In an effort to strengthen community policing, President Obama in December proposed a $263 million investment in, among other things, a Body-Worn Camera Partnership Program, which would allocate $75 million over three years to purchase 50,000 body-worn cameras. As part of that initiative, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) on May 1 announced a $20 million pilot program to respond to local and tribal law enforcement needs.

“This body-worn camera pilot program is a vital part of the Justice Department’s comprehensive efforts to equip law enforcement agencies throughout the country with the tools, support, and training they need to tackle the 21st century challenges we face,” said Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch. “Body-worn cameras hold tremendous promise for enhancing transparency, promoting accountability, and advancing public safety for law enforcement officers and the communities they serve.”

This week, DOJ’s Office of Justice Programs’ Bureau of Justice Assistance launched an online toolkit to provide resources for law enforcement professionals and their communities to assist their planning and implementation of body-worn camera programs. The toolkit is also interactive, and includes opportunities to submit feedback and questions, request training and technical assistance, and explore funding opportunities.

Congress is also examining the potential of body-worn cameras as a tool for accountability. At a Senate Judiciary Committee Crime and Terrorism Subcommittee hearing on Tuesday – “Body Cameras: Can Technology Increase Protection for Law Enforcement Officers and the Public?” – Sen. Tim Scott, R. S.C., invoked situations in Ferguson and Baltimore, and in his own state of South Carolina, to underscore why investments in the cameras are needed.

“I am here today because I believe strongly that another important piece of that puzzle to help rebuild trust and construct brighter futures in many communities around the country is body-worn cameras,” Scott said. “I say one piece, because I think we can all acknowledge there is no single solution, but rather many critical steps we must take to tackle poverty, criminal justice reform and instances of police brutality.”

Henderson testified on the hearing’s second panel, and noted that body-worn camera footage can be incomplete – or even misleading. “That’s why other sources of evidence, including the officer’s own independent recollection of an incident, must be preserved,” he said. “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,” Henderson said.


Click here to read the shared civil rights principles for law enforcement body-worn cameras.

Click here to view the toolkit produced by DOJ’s Office of Justice Programs’ Bureau of Justice Assistance.

Click here to read Henderson’s full written testimony.